As the Wind Blows

Idaho Grower of the Year: SouthWind Farms

Published online: Nov 06, 2020 Articles, Grower of the Month Tyrell Marchant, Editor
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This article appears in Potato Grower’s 2020 Idaho Annual issue.

The Wayside, just off the Heyburn exit, serves a decent burger and killer apple pie. It’s packed in here, as it is every day at noon, but it’s still one of those places with a definite everybody-knows-your-name vibe. Rod Lake hasn’t even sat down yet, but already the waitress is headed toward him with a tall glass of Pepsi. Lake and his business partners, brothers Robert and Jerry Tominaga, are regulars here. They manage to chat up everyone at the neighboring tables, and it’s impossible to tell whether they’ve known these people for two minutes or 40 years.

Sitting with them, you get the feeling that these guys would feel at home just about anywhere and be welcomed by just about any crowd. Each is confident and comfortable in his own skin, acutely aware of his own strengths and shortcomings, sure of his role on both a business and a personal level. More than anything, that is what has led to the success of their business, SouthWind Farms, which grows and markets several varieties of fingerling potatoes.

SouthWind Farms has been around for 20 years, but Robert, Jerry and Rod have all been involved in the potato industry for considerably longer. The Tominagas are third-generation Idaho potato growers who, until about 10 years ago, operated a conventional farm growing primarily russet potatoes and dry beans. Lake started out as an agronomist out of college, eventually building his own conventional farm that he and his family still run separately from SouthWind today.

Robert was the first to dip his toe into the fingerling potato market. With another business partner, he began growing and packing the little spuds in the late ’90s. After three years of what could generously be called moderate success, the partner bowed out. So Robert called up his brother Jerry and old friend Rod.

“I called Rod and Jerry,” Robert recalls, “and I told them, ‘I still think this has some merit.’”

Each was game.

SouthWind Farms was born on four acres on the north shore of the Snake River. No one in Idaho—and indeed, very few in the country—were growing fingerlings at the time, so finding advice was difficult. The learning curve was steep. Most of their equipment was homemade. That first harvest, trucks were simply unloaded onto the ground, and the Tominaga and Lake families would pack potatoes into crates and sacks by hand.

“We learned how to do it through trial and error, for the most part,” says Jerry. “The mistakes we made early on were killers, because it might mean we didn’t have a crop that year.”

“Fertility, equipment, water management, storage—it’s all completely different from growing your more traditional potato varieties,” says Rod. “You might as well be handling oranges; that’s how different it is.”

“This always had the potential to be a pretty lucrative business,” says Robert, “but it’s also extremely risky because fingerling potatoes can’t be treated like a commodity. You don’t have that huge industry to fall back on. If you get in much trouble, you’re kind of the only man out there floating around.”

SouthWind Farms’ start at the dawn of the millennium coincided with the rise of the internet, the foodie movement, and media outlets such as the Food Network introducing the public to new and exciting ways to enjoy old favorites like potatoes.

Year by year, SouthWind Farms grew—from four acres that first year, to eight, then to 16. As their collective understanding of the production side of the fingerling potato business grew incrementally and steadily, so too did their customer base. Today, they grow, pack and ship about 700 acres’ worth of marketable fingerlings, as well as 50 additional acres on which they produce their own seed. The SouthWind packing facility in Heyburn can ship fingerlings in packages ranging in size from 24 ounces for retail customers, to 2,000-pound totes for their largest foodservice customers. Several of SouthWind’s customers from the earliest days—discovered by simply typing “fingerling potatoes” into the Google search bar—are still with them.

“One of our biggest milestones,” says Rod with a wry smile, “was the first food show we went to where we didn’t all share a hotel room. Thankfully, don’t have to do that anymore.”

A major component of the company’s success has been a stringent food safety program. Primus and GAP audits are conducted every year, and guidelines are strictly adhered to. That attention to detail has kept old customers coming back, and acted as an invitation to new customers.

“Food safety is a big deal to us,” says Robert. “It’s a big deal to the whole industry, and it’s only going to get bigger.”

Robert, Jerry and Rod are each quick deflect personal credit for SouthWind’s success. They credit their customers for being both trusting and demanding. They credit their wives and kids. They credit the promotion machine built by the Idaho Potato Commission. They credit their employees, many of whom have been on staff for well over a decade. And, of course, they credit each other.

“The whole partnership has been great,” says Jerry. “It’s been a family-type deal the whole way.