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Potatoes, Staunton Style
Farming in the Klamath Basin

August 8, 2007  -  by Kris Millgate

World War I determined the future for the Stauntons. Grandpa Web earned 85 acres in northern California for his tour of duty during the war. “The West was so undeveloped at the time, it was really an unknown,” says Ed Staunton, Klamath Basin Farmer. Almost a century later, the Staunton farm could sell for an estimated $2,500 an acre, but the Staunton brothers aren’t going anywhere and they have their father, John, to thank for that. Ed says, “This is the first spring [Dad] hasn’t been on a tractor. He is the main reason us three boys came back and became successful. He gave us the opportunity to learn and then he gave us the opportunity to take over.” Now the brothers have frost to fight, flood waters to forge and crops of varying kind to care for. Sid says, “The most exciting thing to me about farming is simplicity. It’s just a great example of creation. You put in seeds, the plants grow and then you have food in three months. It just marvels me every year.”

Farm Freeze

The Staunton brothers, Marshall, Sid and Ed, are third generation farmers in Tulelake, Calif. They farm 5,000 acres in the Klamath Basin near the California-Oregon border. “It’s high desert. We can see Mt. Shasta sticking out like a sore thumb, but it’s absolutely gorgeous,” says Ed. Marshall grows the onions, Sid and Ed split the potatoes and they all share in growing peppermint, wheat, barley, alfalfa and horseradish. Ed says, “Diversification is important for us. We always try new things.” Diversification is key in a location that works for and against them. It works against them weather wise because they farm in a high-risk area for frost. Pipelines, rather than pivots, snake through the rows of Russets and specialty varieties. “We’re more frost sensitive than any region in the continental United States. We can get 10-15 frosts a year,” says Ed. “On cold nights, at about 33 degrees, we’ll crank on all the irrigation systems and they will protect the potatoes from freezing. It’s expensive, but it is the only way you can beat the frost and burn factor. Pivots can’t stay ahead of the frost.” The expense is worth it because of Klamath’s claim on rich soil. Sid says, “We get better yields in fewer days than any other place in the country. It’s pretty remarkable in this basin. A lot of 600-sack crops come out of this area.” Location also makes the frost-prone farm prime property. “The reason potatoes are still in the Klamath basin is quality and accessibility,” says Sid. The brothers own and pack their potatoes through Cal-Ore Produce. It is the largest shipper in California and ships year-round. “Our niche is our location. We’re on the top of the most populated state and we’re the closest Russet shipper. That’s an advantage. San Francisco can call and in seven hours our load is shipped and there. No one else can do that when it comes to fresh.”

Farm Flood

A flood on top of all the frost sounds defeating, but flooding in the Klamath Basin is making waves in a positive way. Walking wetlands, as they are called, are created when farmland is put under less than a foot of water for two to three years. “It doesn’t fit every area. You can’t go to some areas of Washington or Idaho and flood the sand, but it could definitely work for other areas,” says Ed. “It is a win-win situation. The wildlife loves it because there are instant wetlands rich in food and habitat. Farmers love it because it rejuvenates the farm ground.” The waterlogged federal lease land goes out to bid at the end of the flood stage and the highest bidder plants on the chemical-free ground with the condition of growing some grain for wildlife. A nematode-infested plot went under water 10 years ago. The Stauntons won the first bid to farm it. “We jumped in there. It was a heck of risk, but we said, ‘Lets go for it.’ We planted and didn’t use fumigants and had no damage at all. It was amazing,” says Sid. Swamping land for a time is so popular with the Stauntons, they are now trying it on 90 of their own acres. Ed says, “The highest price for rent is now on those leased lands and it’s getting so competitive. We want to continue going [underwater] and not be shut out so we put the process in place on our private land. You’re getting around 500 sacks of Russets before flooding, then you flood and it jumps up to more than 600 sacks. Flooding is raising yields by about 20 percent so the potential is there.”

Farm Friendly

They’re raising yields, but only to a certain extent. The Stauntons have been and are still active with many potato organizations. Ed recently served on the executive committee for the U.S. Potato Board (USPB). “I am truly amazed at what the Potato Board does with so little resources,” says Ed. “The staff is incredible.” Now Ed is the California board representative for the National Potato Council and Sid is serving on the USPB domestic marketing committee. They’re also one of the first farming families from the Klamath Basin to toot the United co-op horn. Ed says, “We’ve learned we’ve got to balance supply with demand so the prices come up. We can never take our eye off the ball of matching supply with demand and we can’t grow more potatoes and hope other growing regions have a weather disaster.” Ed also says the wave of effort to change mindsets is working and United Potato Growers is proof of that. “What we’ve learned from this whole co-op experience is, working together as an industry is a collective effort,” says Ed. “All growing regions need to realize the value of United and join the co-op. With the Capper-Volsted Act, members of the co-op can legally share information that can help increase returns for potatoes. Information is knowledge.” Sid echoes his brother’s sentiment. “It just got to be such a blood bath about a decade ago. We lost so many neighbors it felt like we were living in a little ghost town down here. Now this basin, agriculturally, is on an economic upturn,” says Sid. “The industry is putting away the hatchet and saying, ‘I hope you do well and I hope you do well.’ If we all over deliver, we’re all going to pay.” The co-op idea is refreshing for the Stauntons. They see it as a source of stability and in farming that’s hard to come by. Ed says, “We all got to the point of saying, ‘Why is it wrong to get along with the guys in Idaho, Washington, or anywhere else?’ Now I’m excited about the potato industry. I think the next few years will be profitable. That’s key and that is what we are all working for.”

(Editor's note: Kris Millgate is a freelance writer based in Idaho Falls, Idaho.)

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