Edward, Hiram, Keith, and Larry. What do these four people have in common? Each one had a turn running the family potato farm in Stanton, MI. Fast forward to today, and the operation, now known as Sackett Ranch, Inc., is a Top 100 Grower producing potatoes, peas, and other crops. Larry Sackett, who is now at the helm, says his great grandfather, Edward, started farming potatoes in this area of Michigan, which is just north of Grand Rapids, in 1895. Nearly a century later in the 1970s, Larry began making his mark on the spud-growing industry. This potato-producing operation is no stranger to the Top 100. Sackett Ranch first graced this list in 1998 with a reported 3,031 acres. Today, that figure has more than doubled, exceeding 7,500 acres. The farm is number 10 on American Vegetable Grower’s Top 100 Growers list in the North.
To sustain and grow the operation over the years, the focus has been on consistently producing superior potatoes. As a producer of spuds for the chipping industry, Sackett says the main goal is to have his product not only meet but exceed the quality standards for appearance, color, etc. as detailed by the company who receives the bulk of his farm’s spuds: Frito-Lay. In fact, the farm grows varieties developed by the snack food giant. Sackett says his top three varieties include two from Frito-Lay: FL (Frito Lay) 1867 and FL 1833, and Pike, a variety that is is resistant to golden nematode and scab. A chipping potato supplier to Frito-Lay since 1965, Sackett adds that the company has been improving its own varieties for some time, with one of its first varieties being FL 2. As the numbered varieties indicate, from 2 to 1867, Frito Lay has been perfecting its offerings for years. Taking an active role in the marketplace, Frito-Lay not only develops varieties for its growers, the company promotes those operations, as well. In 2009, Frito-Lay began a nationwide marketing plan called “Lay’s Local” that highlighted its potato growers in California, Florida, Maine, Michigan, and Texas. The campaign included national and regional television advertisements. Today, on the Frito-Lay website (www.fritolay.com), a page called “Meet Some of Our Potato Farmers” includes video highlights of some of the growers.
In addition to growing the right chipping potato varieties, the next step is to keep a critical eye on potatoes in storage. This can be quite an undertaking as the farm ships spuds 10 months each year. “Sometimes it is only about six weeks from the time we finish shipping and we start over again with planting around the middle of April,” adds Sackett.
To house all the potatoes, the operation now has a total of 50 long- and short-term facilities. The storage units hold from 11,000 cwt. to 60,000 cwt.
In fact, the farm just opened a new storage unit to increase its capacity. In all the facilities, temperature and humidity levels are managed to sustain quality, and they vary based on potato variety and shipping date. Specifically, computers are a big factor in controlling fans, air inlets, and ventilation. Frequency drives are used to control various fan speeds, adds Sackett. In addition to controlling temperatures and humidity levels to ensure quality, the operation also works with a consulting firm in Lansing, MI. Every couple of weeks, samples are pulled from each facility and tests are conducted by the consulting firm to make sure the potatoes are “where they need to be in the process,” he explains. This way, the farm determines if the potatoes are ready to be shipped or if they need to be stored longer. Sackett says the process is part of an overall management tool as certain varieties are shipped not long after harvest while others, that will be stored longer, must be micromanaged to maintain quality.
Room To Grow
In the end, he says storage is managed bin by bin, and, down the line, more more long-term storage for additional growth,” Sackett explains. The chipping industry is not growing, he adds quickly, but there are opportunities for potato growers in Michigan. “The heaviest populations in the U.S. are east of the Mississippi River. [Michigan potato growers] can deliver faster and use less gas for more competitive pricing. Michigan growers have a history of delivering consistent quality to chip plants from year to year. For Larry Sackett’s advice on becoming a potato grower, go to page two.