Learned from the Best

Published online: Jan 31, 2021 Articles, Grower of the Month, Seed Potatoes
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This article appears in the February 2021 issue of Potato Grower.

Matt Foth wasn’t supposed to be a potato grower. But then again, maybe he was. Talking to him now, driving around his farm, it certainly feels like that’s what he was born to do.

All the 15-year-old Foth wanted was a summer job. And he got one, working for respected seed potato grower Bill Skinner in Toston, Mont. 

“In my teens, I wasn’t thinking, ‘This is my dream,’” says Foth. “It was just a summer job like every kid got, making some money to buy your first car.”

Those summer days would start with an half-hour drive to the farm in Toston from Manhattan, where the Foth and Skinner families both lived. And they ended with another half-hour drive home each night.

“In my late teens, in those coming-of-age years, I probably spent as much time with Bill as anybody,” says Foth. “If I needed somebody to talk to, if I was struggling with something, I would quite often go to Bill. He was really like a second father figure to me.”

After a four-year stint as a firefighter in the Army National Guard, Foth brought his young family back Toston and started working full-time for Skinner. And he loved it. But he wanted something more. So, in 1999, he leased five acres and grew his very own crop of early-generation seed potatoes—with a big helping hand from Skinner. Aside from being his first customer, Skinner helped Foth in many other ways.

“Growing those early gens was probably something Bill could have just done himself,” Foth says, “but he gave me the opportunity. Without his help, it would have been virtually impossible for me to get started. Those first few years he just let me use some of his equipment, no charge. He took me on trips to visit with customers in the Columbia Basin. He helped out in a lot of ways, not just monetary.”

After a few years, Foth was able to transition to working full-time growing his own crop, while maintaining a close relationship with Skinner. When Skinner decided to retire after the 2018 harvest, Foth was ready to step in and buy the whole operation, more than doubling his acres. And he’s making the most of it—with the occasional helping had from his old friend and mentor, of course.

“I still take Bill’s advice to heart,” says Foth. “If I’m having a problem out in the field, he’s the first one I call.”

*          *          *

A decade ago, nobody probably would have said Travis Stuber was meant to me a potato farmer, either. Sure, his young bride, the former Melissa Sales, was a rancher’s daughter from the Gallatin Valley, Montana’s seed potato nirvana. And sure, he and his young family loved the area. And, yeah, he could even drive a tractor with passable skill. But running a potato farm? That was a little beyond his expertise.  

Travis and Melissa’s young married life was spent largely on the road in a fifth-wheel camper with their two young kids as Travis crisscrossed the country in his job doing heli-portable seismic drilling. It was a good gig, and they genuinely enjoyed it. But in 2016, when Melissa’s father, Walt Sales, was elected to the Montana state legislature around the same time Travis suffered a neck and back injury on a job in Oklahoma, they made the decision to come back to the ranch full-time. For years, Walt had partnered with Gene Cole, a local seed potato grower, and the Stubers’ decision would involve working for him as well.

“We were in the thick of another life,” says Melissa. “But we said we’d think about it separately and then decide together. Travis got home one night and just said, ‘I think we should.’”

“That was literally it,” says Travis. “I came the next day and started working for Gene. We learned really quickly how to calve. It was all very sudden, but it always felt right.”

For a year, Travis worked for both Gene and Walt, slowly transitioning this new life. But in the winter of 2017, Gene unexpectedly asked if Travis and Melissa would be interested in buying him out.

“It was much sooner than we were anticipating,” says Travis, “but we just said, ‘Okay.’ Looking back now, the timing was perfect. It’s hard to explain, but we were just ready. We kind of just stepped right into Gene’s shoes, and in 2017 we grew and harvested our first crop.”

At first, the Stubers ran the farm as closely as they could to the pattern Gene had set. But with a lot of input from Gene, they have implemented some changes of their own, most notably a switch from wheel line irrigation to almost exclusively pivots. And they love the life they’ve chosen.

“This has been a great fit for our family,” says Melissa.

*          *          *

There’s not enough space here to share the stories of every Montana grower who has gotten a start thanks to non-family mentors. Nina Zidack, director of the Montana State Seed Potato Certification Program, is ready with a whole list of successful mentor/protégé success stories. Among them:

  • Traig DeBoer, who as a teenager so impressed his employer Bill Cole that he was handed the reins to the farm immediately after high school graduation;
  • T.J., Curt and David Dykema, originally cattle ranchers with no potato experience, who took over Ron Dyk’s farm about seven years ago; and
  • Clark Johnson, who partnered with Bill Skinner and continues to run a successful mini-tuber and early-generation farm since Skinner’s retirement.

“Seed potato farming is very capital-intensive,” says Zidack. “It’s difficult to get a start. These mentors are contributing tremendously to the future of our industry in the state of Montana, and all of these new farmers have brought a fresh perspective to our state.”

“There’s a team feeling here in Montana, and we felt it the day we walked in,” says Travis Stuber. “I can call any one of the neighbors and ask for advice. And every one of them is so helpful. We really are all looking out for each other.”

Matt Foth points out one other, very important common thread among Montana’s seed growers.

“Bill had this quote hanging in his office when I was a teenager: ‘Persistence is omnipotent.’ When I finally wrapped my head around it, something just clicked,” he says. “If this is something you want, you can do it. I could hand you the golden key and you might not make it. But anybody can make it work if they have the drive, the persistence and the willingness to learn.”