More Than a Shiny Coat of Paint

Published online: Nov 21, 2019 Grower of the Month Tyrell Marchant, Editor
Viewed 1343 time(s)
This article appears in Potato Grower's 2019 Idaho Annual issue.

Ten-wheeler truck after ten-wheeler truck rolls by on Airport Road southeast of Aberdeen, kicking up gravel and a familiar, harvesty cloud of dust. Ritchey Toevs has just a few minutes to sit and talk about his career in the Idaho potato industry while his harvest crew pulls out after finishing up Burbank harvest and heads down the road to start in on the Clearwaters.

This is the 43rd potato harvest Toevs has been a part of since coming back to the family farm upon completion of his animal science degree from the University of Idaho in 1976. Despite his self-effacing demeanor, Toevs has in that time become one of the most respected voices in Idaho’s potato industry. He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t let a word escape his mouth unless it has been carefully measured in his mind and will contribute positively to the conversation at hand. And he firmly believes that for individual growers to succeed, there needs to be a free flow of conversation both casual and serious.

“Ag people are among the best operational managers in the world. But what we haven’t always done very well is strategic planning, especially on an industry-wide level,” says Toevs. “Growers are doggedly independent, but to remain independent, we’d better find things we can do together. We have to find a unified voice and be strategic about what we chase after and ask for in the political and regulatory arena.”

Toevs has made his voice heard in the industry for a long time, having served with the National Potato Council, the U.S. Potato Board (now Potatoes USA) and, most recently, as a commissioner with the Idaho Potato Commission.  

“Being involved gives you the opportunity to meet people who see the big picture,” he says. “It’s pushed me out of my comfort zone a lot of times. But we can only influence change when we see change coming. If you’re involved, more often than not you end up in the right place.”

Toevs certainly seems to have consistently put himself in the right place. The farm under his stewardship has grown to operate on about 3,200 acres, with 1,000 acres of potatoes, most of them bound to be processed into fries. Since the early 1990s, Toevs has also grown his own seed. For years his seed farm was on high desert west of Aberdeen. In 2014, he partnered with Koompin Farms to grow seed near Chesterfield, where they do a one-year increase in the seed before bringing it to the commercial farms. So far, that move has worked out well for both parties.

“Partnerships are really important in the potato business,” says Toevs. “Whether you’re talking about business partners, employees or customers, you can’t succeed without solid relationships you can trust.”

Toevs is a big believer in innovation on the farm and across the industry, but he makes a point to caution against progress for progress’ sake. To him, it all comes back to making sure those relationships are on solid ground.

“I look at what the customer values in our relationship and invest in that,” he says. “It’s probably not new paint that’s going to impress a customer. New equipment or technology doesn’t matter if it’s not minimizing foreign material or disease contamination, or doing something else to make their lives better.”

The relationships that have mattered the most, though, are with the people Toevs works with every day—his employees and his family. He has multiple employees who have been with the farm for over 30 years. He says he values integrity and hard work above almost anything else, and tries to consistently reward those traits.

“It’s cliché, but we’ve had great employees, and it really is like a family,” Toevs says. “We’ve found ways to show appreciation other than just a paycheck. We want every one of their kids to know they’ll have an opportunity to go to college. The best way to tell someone you appreciate them is to do something nice for their kids, and we really do try to do that.”

Toevs firmly believes that there is no other line of work in which you could find better people—that agriculture is, beyond question, the best environment in which to raise a family. He credits his wife Joanne as being “my most significant partner in all of this.” Their three daughters, Ellen, Meredith and Abigail, all still live in Idaho and return to the farm on a regular basis. Their son Will works by Ritchey’s side, carrying on that tradition the Toevs family is so proud of.

“You know,” Toevs says with a small smile and contented sigh, “farming really does get you close to the most important things in life.”