The sights and sounds of combines running across soybean and corn fields over the past couple of months signal its harvest time in the Bluegrass state and most of the country. Whether we’re harvesting corn, soybeans, apples or potatoes, most of what is gathered ends up on our tables. But does that make it “farm to table”?
Some sources define the term “farm to table” as “food coming directly from a specific farm without going through a store, market or distributor.” While the movement of sourcing local foods and connecting farms directly to the public through restaurants, CSAs, farmer’s markets or on-farm stores has created a win-win for consumers and farmers, it may have skewed our perceptions about where our food staples, like beans, potatoes and bread, are grown and produced.
The Family Farm Behind Our Food
Locally, we may know the farmer and the farm. But, behind any food product, there is farmer and, in most cases, a family farm. Today, 96% of all farms are family owned, ranging from a few acres to thousands.
Regardless of size, the commitment to producing quality products in a sustainable manner is the goal. In fact, one of the more “visible” family farms from which you may encounter products on your table is Black Gold Farms, a fourth-generation family-owned potato farm headquartered in the Red River Valley of North Dakota. From mashed to sweet potatoes, French fries and chips … the Halverson Family likely has a place on your plate.
The Real “Mr. Potato”
A few years ago, I met Gregg Halverson as we both serve on an advisory board for a food and ag public relations group. Gregg, the third generation of Black Gold Farms and currently the chairman of the board, is the real “Mr. Potato.” Gregg and his children, now the fourth generation, exemplify how family farms remain committed to their roots, yet invest for the future to meet consumer demands. I recently asked Gregg about the history of Black Gold Farms and the company’s commitment to producing sustainable crops.
Black Gold Farms is a 4th generation family farm/company. How did it start and is North Dakota just “naturally good” for growing potatoes or did your family introduce the crop?
Gregg: The first crop of potatoes on the farm (which we still tend) were grown by A. E Halverson (my grandfather) in 1928 near Forest River ND, in the Red River Valley. The Red River Valley remains the largest red potato production area in the nation, and is famous for its rich black soil, which is the base of red potato production.
My father (Jack) came back to the family farm in 1944, following a stint with the Army Air Corps, growing mostly red potatoes for the fresh potato market. I returned to the family business in 1971, after graduating from North Dakota State. It was during this time the name and brand was changed to Black Gold Farms and potato production expanded.
Now, the farm is under the direction of my three children with the hope of a fifth generation to carry on the business. We have eight granddaughters who are appropriately exposed to the potato production business. Of course, we hope they will be interested in a potato production life journey during and after they complete their formal education. In five years, we’ll celebrate 100 years of continuous potato production within our family.
Black Gold Farms potato production has expanded over the years. What characteristics are necessary for different potato products?
Gregg: It starts with a product specification. Then we do our best to provide our customers with the proper raw material (potato) to make the perfect potato product for everyone’s table. Our farms produce a variety of potatoes as different potato products demand distinct types of potatoes. We work with our customers to not only be sustainable suppliers, but provide the exact potato quality, size, and shape required for their finished product. Internal characteristics such as sugar content, correct specific gravity and freedom from internal defects are all very important.
Potatoes grown specially for the potato chip potato segment is our largest segment, but we also produce significant acreage of potatoes for the frozen (French fry) segment as well as sweet potatoes for the frozen and table markets. We now produce potatoes in 10 states and are proud of our community involvement in every production area.
“Digging Deeper” is your tagline. What has the farm done to preserve the land/environment for the next generations and “connect the sustainability dot” with consumers?
Gregg: We do use the tagline “Digging Deeper” as it highlights that we are serious about the potato business, sustainability, and very proud of our heritage. When it comes to sustainability, it is one of our core values. Actually, it’s more than a value; it is something we live daily. After all, a farmer must be sustainable if one has a hope and vision for success. It’s not only how we grow potatoes but all aspects of our business. Our headquarters office (now about 10 years old) was the first non-public LEED Gold office building built in the state of North Dakota!
Our customers appreciate our “dig deeper” commitment to sustainability and we believe it gives us a strong base from which we make many decisions. Trust is core to our sustainability philosophy at Black Gold. We have spent many hours and many dollars putting together data systems using the information that we collect to prove our authenticity. After all, with actionable real time data, we believe that sustainability is much more than a promise.
“Farm to table” gets labeled as if food is only “farm to table” when grown locally. But how many of tables benefit from your farms’ production?
Gregg: “Farm to Table “is a tagline used by many. We do farm in numerous locations and are proud of the fact that we are a part of the Farm to Table club. Every day we focus on our three major areas of importance: people, crop and customer. Our objectives include efficiency, working to take miles out of the system, becoming world class producers, and working with our customers to provide the quality of potatoes needed to ensure consistent products on all our tables. Customer centricity is our job and a serious daily commitment at Black Gold Farms.
In your household, is it a “potato a day” to keep the doctor away?
Gregg: Yes, potato usage in our house may exceed the national per capita usage numbers, but we just love potatoes and use them in some form or another practically every day! Maybe it is our culture! That is one of the beauties of potatoes, they are nutritious, tasty, and priced right.
From Family Farm to Our Tables
Regardless of size, family farms do provide a significant amount of food for our table. It is the commitment of farm families like the Halverson Family who continue to “dig deeper” and stay committed to producing food for the future.
It is this commitment and risk taking by all farmers in producing quality products in a sustainable manner that keeps food on our table. Let us celebrate and be grateful for all.