High-Elevation Legacy

Published online: Jan 04, 2021 Articles, Grower of the Month Bob Mattive & Lyla Davis
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This article appears in the January 2021 issue of Potato Grower.

The San Luis Valley is in south-central Colorado at an elevation of 7,544 feet, making it the largest alpine desert in the world. The area, roughly 60 miles east to west and 120 miles north to south (the state of Connecticut would fit inside it), the Valley is rich in history and culture and averages 350 days of sunshine each year. The average summer temperature is 65 degrees Fahrenheit with about 7 inches of annual precipitation. July and August are generally the only frost-free months. These conditions make ideal ground for raising seed potatoes. 

Potatoes were introduced to the Valley around 1875, making it one of the oldest growing regions in the United States. In the 1940s, the first certified seed potato crop was produced starting the legacy of Colorado potato seed. 

The Worley Family Farms, LLC (formerly Worley Seed) story began in 1919 when Gerald Worley, after serving in the U.S. Navy during World War I, loaded his belongings into a railroad boxcar and moved to the San Luis Valley. Farming was Gerald’s life, and he passed that passion down to his son Carl. 

Carl Worley was born in 1930 and started his own potato-growing career when he was 11 years old. He bought 16 sacks of Red McClure potato seed from his dad and planted one acre of potatoes for his 4-H project. He continued to grow potatoes, winning ribbons at the local county fair and placing well at the state fair. Carl continued to grow seed potatoes throughout his school years. He attended Colorado A&M (now Colorado State University), during which time he joined the ROTC program and earned a degree in animal husbandry. He served in the U.S. Army infantry in Korea and returned home in 1954 to resume farming and raising seed potatoes with his wife Audrey. Carl and Audrey had five daughters, all of whom helped out on the farm.  

Carl was always active in his community, serving on boards and working for the betterment of the potato industry in Colorado. He received many awards over the years, such as the Colorado Master Seedsman award and the National Potato Council’s Seed Grower of the Year, all reflecting on his contributions to the agricultural community and the potato industry. In the mid- 1970s, Carl and his partner Dick Boyce started their own packing shed, Hi-land Potato Company, to pack and ship their commercial potatoes. Having their own shed complemented Carl’s growing seed business that was shipping large volumes of seed potatoes to California.  

Bob and Gail (Worley) Mattive joined Carl in 1982. In 1984, daughter Carla Worley returned to farm with Carl. Worley Seed was growing. With the move to center pivot irrigation, an on-farm tissue culture lab and greenhouse for seed production and additional farming partners the farm thrived. Carl enjoyed the challenges of trying new things, whether that meant new potato varieties or new equipment designs. That innovative passion has migrated down through the generations that continue to follow in his footsteps.  

He began his career row-watering and hand-harvesting potatoes and lived to experience computerized center pivots and million-dollar harvest equipment that harvest more potatoes in 10 minutes than he did in a whole day when he started out. The farm always has 15 to 20 different varieties under evaluation and production. In the late 1990s, Carl and some partners built a dehy plant that was desperately needed in the San Luis Valley. That plant, now owned by Idaho Pacific, is still in operation today. Carl watched his last crop go into the bin in 2018, but that is not the end of the story. Worley Family Farms, LLC is still thriving. 

The Worleys’ story is a microcosm of Colorado’s potato industry—and the state’s seed program in particular: never panicking, confident in the long-term goals, enthusiastic about new developments in science and technology, open to constructive advice, and, perhaps most importantly, willing to grit their teeth and ride out the hard times, holding onto the faith that they know what they’re doing. 

What the next generation’s contribution to Worley Family Farms will be is unknown. That part of the story is not written yet, but the potential is there. The company was reorganization and a succession plan put in place in 2013 to help solidify the future of the farm—not an easy process but, everyone in the family agrees, a necessary one. Every member of the family worked off the farm before returning to be a part of its future, which they view as a vitally important part of the farm’s continued success. Farming is challenging enough, and family farming elevates that challenge. But, as evidenced by the Worleys, the rewards borne of a family farming together can be tremendously enriching.