Washington State ranks second in the nation's potato production and produces 20 percent of all U.S. potatoes. Approximately 140,000 acres of potatoes are located in three growing regions: Yakima Valley in central Washington, the Columbia Basin in south-central Washington and Skagit County in northwest Washington.
A John Deere tractor pulls the Grimme potato planter while liquid fertilizer and fungicide are applied to seed pieces.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF DOUBLE-N POTATOES.
Skagit potatoes are in demand for their high quality due to the marine climate and rich Skagit River Delta soil. Moreover, Skagit's 11,500 acres produce the majority of Washington's red potatoes. Washington's annual income from potato production, packing and processing is estimated at $3 billion.
Norm Nelson, Inc. plays a major role in Skagit potato production. Norman W. Nelson, a potato pioneer in his early twenties, began growing potatoes in 1938. Potatoes were initially graded and packed at a nearby packing shed. In the mid-1940s, he acquired an old building and converted it into a packing shed to handle his own product. At that time, the Double-N label was born and is still proudly used today.
Throughout the years that Nelson farmed potatoes, he made no compromises that would affect quality. He remained active in the company until his passing in 1984. His sons, Jim, Norm Jr. and Jerry, operated the farm, with Jerry serving as company president. In June 2002, Jim and Norm sold their interest in the company to Jerry.
Potato fields in bloom.
Although Jerry changed the management structure, he surrounded himself with trusted employees who love the land and respect his father's legacy of quality, consistency and service. Norm Nelson, Inc. has been listed as a Blue Book Trading Member since 1958, receiving the highest level of credit and integrity scores. The Blue Book serves as an international credit and marketing service for the produce industry.
When Myron Ayers, sales manager, visited the San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market for the first time, people knew the Double-N Potatoes label so well that they greeted him as a friend.
"Our modus operandi is to hit the high end of the market," Ayers said. "About 10 percent of our potato product is shipped within Washington, 25 percent to California and 20 percent to Canada. The balance of the crop is marketed across the U.S.; chain stores are consolidating buying structures. Since produce brokers are unable to directly access chain store markets as well as in the past, Norm Nelson, Inc. hired sales staff to make the contacts and also hired shipping staff due to increased shipping requirements."
The Norm Nelson, Inc. legacy grows richer due to Jerry's relationships with employees, his love of the land and his patience with all facets of farming, including crop program experimentation.
Filiberto de la Rosa dumps bins of seed potatoes into the Better-Built potato seed cutter.
"We initially grew the White Rose variety and introduced russets in the late 1950s to early 1960s," Jerry said. "Then we phased out White Rose in the early 1970s, because the quality of this variety had deteriorated. The potato's appearance has to be very white and very smooth to pass our customers' judgment and for us to ask a premium price."
Red potatoes were introduced in the early 1970s, primarily the Red LaSoda variety. In the late 1970s, the White Rose was once again part of the crop program. In 1985, the russets were discontinued due to the cost and inefficiency of the washing process that removed the net, or roughness, from the potato skin. In the 1990s, yellow and purple varieties were added to the mix, and White Rose was replaced with the White Cascade variety. In order to meet the buyers' preference for shallow-eyed red potatoes, the current red potato variety is Red Chieftain. Today Norm Nelson, Inc. offers reds, whites, yellows and purples that are available from October through March. The noticeable sheen on the potatoes, apparently unique to the premium Double-N product, is often commented on.
"We were the first potato grower in the area who started storing red potatoes," Jerry said. "We learned some things along the way and can now store potatoes longer with better quality. The shipping season is from September to May.
All potatoes, except White Cascade, are moved and stored at the farm's 50,000- square-foot washing and packing shed in the city of Burlington. Although White Cascade potatoes produce a good yield and pack out well, they have no shelf life and do not hold their white color if stored.
Quality begins with potato seed. All seed is conventionally grown without genetic alteration. Jerry purchases 40 percent of the farm's seed from the Midwest and Canada and 60 percent from Whatcom County in Washington. Whatcom County seed companies include Cascade Farms, owned by Dale and Jeff Bedlington, and Dick Bedlington Farms, which are located within 50 miles. Proximity allows regular monitoring of seed crop throughout the growing season.
The story goes that Norm Sr. bought potato seed from Dick and Dale's father, Gordon Bedlington, in 1950. Then, in 1972, the Nelson brothers bought potato seed from Dick and Dale after purchasing their father's operation.
"The Nelson family is very progressive and stays on top of the industry with their farming practices," Dick said. "They are wonderful people and farmers."
Jerry and his son, Ryan, walk the potato fields to monitor the crop. If they see a problem they can't identify, they seek advice from local experts, including Dr. Debra Inglis of the Mount Vernon Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center, Marty Coble of Wilbur-Ellis and Rudy Allen, owner of Ag Tech Services, LLC. Allen is a certified crop advisor and certified professional agronomist.
B4The seed cutting crew grades and sizes seed potatoes after the Better-Built cutter makes the initial cut.
"Working with Jerry and Ryan is a real pleasure," Allen said. "They strive to produce the best crop possible, knowing that it is quality that sells their product. Over the past few years, they have adopted new technologies that our company introduced, which enabled them to harvest their crop earlier than normal. This puts a better quality potato in the box and in storage for packing later. Jerry always keeps the quality as his primary goal rather than simply looking at quantity. He understands it is the steady return customers that keep his farm in business."
Inglis, a professor and extension plant pathologist, said, "Jerry Nelson has been a longtime and regular participant in potato workshops and field days. My program works closely with the commercial potato industry in the region, and together with Jerry and other farmers, we strive to keep ahead of diseases and other issues that confront us on a regular basis."
Challenges in the Skagit Valley are the potato virus Y (PVY), spread by aphids, and fungal blights rhizoctonia and silver scurf. Weather patterns highlight and minimize diseases. Late blight is easer to battle in a dry year. Over the years, Jerry has realized that the Red Chieftain variety is a good fit.
First developed in 1966 in Iowa, the Red Chieftain has shown immunity to the common races of late blight, medium to high resistance to common scab, field resistance to mild mosaic and tuber resistance to stem-end browning. Chieftain also shows resistance to the potato leafroll virus (PLRV) that is also spread by aphids.
Working the ground
"Our biggest challenge is the weather," Jerry said. "It is our best friend and our worst enemy. We have to squeeze in our planting when the rains stop. If the ground gets too wet, we have to work the ground all over again. We are guarded. Right now we need warmer and drier weather to work and prepare the ground for planting."
For nine months of the year in Skagit Valley, farmers drain their land of excessive water from rainfall. Ground preparation includes ditching and pumping fields. In spring 2010, 25 percent of the crop was lost due to rain.
Jerry uses the German-made Grimme cup-style potato planter. Grimme cups hold seed pieces in place, ready to be dropped into rows at specified spacing. Mounted tanks apply liquid fertilizer and in-row fungicide to protect the seed piece. Cultivating equipment is a mix of John Deere, International and Allied brands.
Irrigation is necessary during the months of June, July and August. The preferred brand of irrigation equipment is H. T-Bauer, since there is good dealer support in the area.
"Potatoes consist of 80 percent water," Jerry said. "Inadequate watering causes potato stress, and we have a critical watering window of about 50 days."
After 25 years, a cattle enterprise was resurrected to complement the potato operation. Norm Nelson, Inc. is the only potato grower in Skagit Valley that has added a cattle operation to its program. Jersey heifers graze on pastureland of rye, fescue and timothy grasses from April to October. Grassy acreage provides rotation control and better soil tilth.
"When it comes to being stewards of the land, Double-N Potatoes is one of the best," Allen said. "It is very important to have a good rotation of potatoes; this is something Jerry prepares for every year. Keeping the soil loose and biologically active with a long-term grass crop enables him to plant into a very good seedbed when the time comes for a potato crop. This rotation gives the potato plant a chance to reach its maximum production."
Pastureland takes potato quality, consistency and productivity to a higher level to meet consumers' high standards.
A loyal and satisfied workforce
The packing shed operates from September to May. Operations include washing, sorting and packing potatoes for shipment to customers across North America.
Sixteen men and 16 women work at the packing shed with little turnover. In fact, there has been no turnover of women in the past few years. In a separate spring operation, the seed-cutting crew grades and sizes cut seed potatoes after a Better Built cutter makes original seed cuts. Employee loyalty has helped to maintain consistency throughout the operation.
"We replace less than 10 percent of the seasonal employees per year," Jerry said. "We are very proud of little turnover. People have retired from our company. Bill Larson was a 45-year employee."
Every effort is made to keep the operation clean and orderly at the farm and in the warehouse, making Norm Nelson, Inc., an exceptional place to work.
The author is a freelancer contributor based in Anacortes, Wash.