Growing in the Skagit Valley

Standing on a second-story platform in a state-of-theart, 50,000-square-foot potato shed, workers inspected and sorted vibrant red potatoes as they rumbled along a conveyor belt. Nearby, a German-built Affeldt highproduction bagger counted, collected and weighed red potatoes, discharging them into Fox bags labeled Samish River Petite Reds. More workers stacked moveable platforms of bagged potatoes labeled Samish Little Yellow, Samish Little White and Skagit Meadows Red.

Bright and colorful Samish River Red potatoes.

Wallace Farms of Skagit County, Wash., is recognized for its modern potato shed, where potatoes are cleaned, inspected, graded and packaged. Along with conventional varieties, Wallace Farms grows organic varieties that include Washington State certified organic red and russet potatoes. Markets include Canada, the eastern seaboard, the West Coast and major cities across the U.S.

A 200-year family tradition

“We take care of the land,” Jack Wallace said. “The family has farmed the same land over the past 107 years, and we do everything to ensure that the land will be productive 100 years from now. Sustainability comes and goes, and at our farm the proof is in the production. We will endure for many more generations.”

Wallace’s passion for growing potatoes is rooted in his family’s 260-year history, going back to at least 1750 in a small Irish village called Ardtrasna on the northwest Irish coast. Today, Wallace Farms’ 1,000-plus acres includes farmland purchased in 1906. Brothers George and Dick Wallace formed G&D Wallace, Inc. in the 1960s. Today, Jack and his father George handle sales. Brother Norm handles technology, and cousin Tim handles field management.

Climate and soil

Skagit County is located along the Washington coast and produces 95 percent of Washington’s red potato crop. According to Skagit County’s 2009 extension statistics, 11,500 acres of potatoes brought in $57.5 million dollars. Thin-skinned red potatoes compose the most popular varieties.

Workers inspect and sort red potatoes.

“In Skagit Valley, the marine climate and rich alluvial soil produce superior red, white, purple and yellow potatoes,” Wallace said. “Potato colors are more vibrant here than any other place in the country. We gladly accept the challenges of dealing with the marine climate in exchange for superior potatoes. We are not trying to produce the most potatoes, but the best potatoes.”

Challenges due to the wet climate include soil compaction and difficulty during planting and harvest.

“A lot of the time we are trying to get rid of water,” Wallace said. “Getting the soil prepared and ready for planting takes many different operations. More passes across the fields are required to prepare the soil. In spring of 2010, late rains made planting difficult, and we had to wait for fields to dry out. In the fall, those late-planted fields tended to become inundated by rains soonest. Harvest becomes a challenge.”

Precision potato planting

In pursuit of potato production efficiency, Wallace Farms utilizes real-time kinematic (RTK) agricultural GPS technology on John Deere tractors. Based on various GPS signals, RTK technology is used in land and hydrographic surveys and is well-suited to agriculture applications. Technology provides farmers with a tool for yield monitoring, yield and weed mapping, and variable rate fertilizer and spray applications. GPS provides accurate positioning of tractors, as well as satellite maps of the fields.

“Tractors with GPS are relatively new over the past decade or so,” Wallace said. “In the old days, we would mark rows with flags and drive very carefully to make straight rows. Today, GPS is integrated into a tractor’s steering to make straight rows without overlap. After marking the corners, the computer sets up the rows and automatically drives the tractor straight.”

Wallace purchases John Deere tractors and GPS/RTK technology locally from Barnett Implement of Mount Vernon, a family business since 1924. According to Scott Hanseth, agricultural sales, all the farmer has to do is turn the tractor around while planting and spraying. RTK manages the challenges of bumps, humps, hills and valleys during the day or night, even during fog, rain or dust conditions.

Seed certification

“Potato seed is based on generation,” Wallace said. “We buy the earliest generations of seed start that provide the cleanest seed.”

Wallace Farms buys certified potato seed from 15 companies, some located in British Columbia, Alberta, Minnesota and Washington. Local seed companies include Ebe Farms LLC of Custer, Wash. The company primarily ships seed along the West Coast, beginning with California in the winter months, and then moving north to Skagit Valley in the early spring.

“I have tremendous respect for the Wallace Farms operation,” Greg Ebe said. “The Wallace family holds onto a strong tradition of producing quality potatoes for the fresh market, while being progressive and adapting to new and innovative technology.”

Ebe said, “We produce potato seed from tissue culture, which is the process of cloning clean, true-to-type potatoes. The first year is pre-nuclear, which is raised in the greenhouse. The first year grown in the field is nuclear, and the next year is generation one. The following year is generation two.”

Local, certified potato seed growers also include Marlys Bedlington. She founded Pure Potato LLC of Lynden, Wash., and serves on the Washington State Seed Potato Commission.

“Limited-generation seed potatoes simply means growing seed potatoes a limited number of field seasons, and then flushing them out,” Bedlington said. “I start tissue culture plantlets in a laboratory grow room for planting each spring in the greenhouse. These plants produce mini tuber seed potatoes. The next two to three years, I grow them in the fields to increase their volume. We walk the fields to inspect for any disease before they are certified for seed. The seed potatoes are then flushed out or sold to commercial potato growers, and new seed stock replaces them the following year. This process promotes less disease and higher yields for our customers.”

Warehouse technology

The 50,000-square-foot potato shed is the heart of Wallace Farms’ operation. New Zealand-made Wyma fillers and tippers load bins without incurring produce damage. The Wyma Soft-Tip Bin Tipper consists of a corner-pivot bin tipper that is specifically designed to gently handle and control discharge of fresh produce onto a conveyor. An automated hydraulic bin clamp secures the bin before its rotation and adjusts to various bin heights.

The Wyma Gooseneck Bin Filler ensures that the distance between the out-feed and the bottom of the bin is as minimal as possible to avoid produce damage. A photoelectric sensor on the nose of the Gooseneck Bin Filler automatically detects the bottom of the bin, thereby activating the conveyor. As the bin fills, the Gooseneck adjusts to maintain a minimal distance between the nose and the produce at the bottom of the bin. Once the bin is full, the elevator automatically stops until the system is reactivated. Use of bins includes temporary storage of potatoes until they are packaged.

Wallace Farms customizes packaging to meet virtually any special weight, package style or labeling requirement. Clear poly bags are available with bilingual labels for Canada. Two Affeldt baggers weigh potatoes, using accurate scales that discharge potatoes to A.P.M. (Automatic Packaging Machinery) baggers. The baggers open and fill various sizes of poly and mesh bags that depict various labels. Fox Fresh Mesh Combo bags feature one poly film side and one mesh side, providing ventilation at an affordable cost. Consumer poly/mesh packages come in 3 to 15-pound sizes. Bulk containers consist of 25 and 50-pound corrugated boxes, reusable plastic containers (RPC) and corrugated Euro boxes. Master containers consist of 50-pound traditional paper baler bags, RPC containers, Euro boxes and high-graphic corrugated display bins.

Cold storage accommodates conventional and organic potato storage. Pallets are stacked four deep on Northwest Handling System racks. Rails with casters provide easy manual pushback for access and ventilation, eliminating warehouse tractors. Computers control the air systems to maintain a high-quality supply of potatoes throughout the shipping season.

Sandra Spargo works as an agricultural freelance writer. She resides in Anacortes, Wash.