Potatoes, Sustainability and Family Tradition

By: Lauren Heberling

If you were asked where the potatoes for a bag of crunchy potato chips were grown, what would you say? For most of us, an Idaho potato commercial will start running through our minds. But what if I were to tell you that Frito-Lay, one of the world’s largest potato chip producers, sources around 40% of the potatoes used for their chips… from Michigan?

In fact, 1 out of every 4 bags of potato chips we eat in the US is made from potatoes grown in Michigan. Being grown in over 40 counties in Michigan, potatoes are actually a pretty big deal. Potatoes grow best in sandy soil and love a moist, cooler climate making Michigan an ideal spot for growing spuds.

Sackett Potatoes

Travel 90 miles Northwest of Michigan’s capital to Mecosta County, and you will find yourself looking out at acres upon acres of potatoes that are getting ready to become your next bag of chips. These potatoes are grown by the Sackett Family, a family that has been growing potatoes for six generations. The Sackett family began growing potatoes in Michigan in 1905 and today, work alongside over 50 employees to farm over 4,000 acres of potatoes.

In order to diversify and protect the longevity of the operation, they also began growing potatoes in North Carolina and other cash crops including corn and soybeans on their farm in Michigan. Working with eight customers including Frito-Lay, the Sacketts produce over 100,000,000 million pounds of Michigan potatoes each year. For the Sackett family, everything they do, and each potato they grow, is grounded on their core principles of honesty, integrity, and family.

The Nitty-Gritty of Potatoes

The land that potatoes are grown on has a pretty hefty job to do. Not only is it responsible for producing a large number of potatoes in a small area, but it also has to keep the potatoes fed and fertilized while they grow all while continually fighting off weeds and harmful insects. Because of these factors, it is critical that they have everything involving the growing of potatoes down to a science.

There are three main classes of potatoes that are grown: red skin, white, and russets. The potato that is most common in Michigan is the white potato because of how well it works to make chips. In fact, 75% of the potatoes grown in Michigan are white potatoes used for making chips, while only 25% are red skin and russets that are grown to be eaten fresh.

In Michigan, potatoes are traditionally planted in May and harvested in September. Potatoes are planted in 34-inch rows, six to twelve inches apart. To plant potatoes, a seed piece or tuber, a piece of an underground potato stem, is planted four inches deep. There are about 20,000 of these seed pieces or tubers planted per acre, which leaves a farmer to incur a seed cost of about $600 per acre of potatoes.

Remember when it was mentioned that potatoes grow best in sandy soil? With this sandy soil, despite being great for growing potatoes, an additional challenge is presented to farmers because sandy ground is not as good at holding onto nutrients and moisture as say, a heavier ground, would be. To help combat this, on average, 150 – 300 pounds of nitrogen, 65 – 100 pounds of phosphorus, and 200 – 250 pounds of potassium are applied to each crop of potatoes. The high nutrient demand combined with a dense seeding rate makes potatoes one of the most expensive crops to grow compared to those like corn, soybeans, and wheat.

Building a Better Planet, One Chip at a Time

For almost every farmer, high quality, healthy and arable land is hard, and expensive, to come by. For potato farmers, this is even more true, given the specific type of ground needed to grow potatoes. Finding a market for your potatoes proves to be even more difficult. In the US, potatoes are not sold like other commodities where they are traded on an open market. For potatoes, growers must have a contract with a company, specifying how many potatoes will be produced for what price. Evaluating all these factors, in addition to the high level of expertise and knowledge needed to grow potatoes, what you will find is that it is extremely challenging to enter the potato industry as a newer grower.

The opportunity to grow potatoes for generations and have the land they do is something the Sackett Family does not take lightly. For Sacketts, this land is their biggest asset and it is their priority to protect this asset the best they can. To do this, Sackett Potatoes set out to build the health of their soil and continue to improve their stewardship of the land. Working with Morgan Composting, they analyze their ground- nutrient levels, current farming practices and where there are opportunities to boost efficiency while also protecting the environment. Based on this analysis, they implement customized practices to help achieve these goals. For Sacketts, the use of compost, manure and biologicals have been key in helping them to build a better planet, one potato chip at a time.