By ROBERT WAGGENER
Editor’s note: This is the eighth story in a series exploring opportunities and issues of potato growers across the region.
First-generation farmer Jeff Harper and his family run a diversified farm in southwest Idaho, growing alfalfa, corn for silage, irrigated soft white winter wheat, dry beans, garden beans, spearmint and potatoes.
Potatoes are their highest input crop and, therefore, carry the most risk, but they also are their most important crop when looking at the big picture.
“You can put $3,000 per acre into potatoes when it comes to seed, fertilizer and compost, herbicides, insecticides, irrigation and labor associated with everything from planting to harvest,” he says. “No other crop takes that much to produce. But year-in, year-out, potatoes seem to get us over the top.”
Most of the spuds are sold to processing facilities that turn them into french fries.
“Potatoes are a high-dollar cash crop, but they are our mainstay,” says Harper, a former board member of the Idaho Potato Commission.
Harper and his wife, Jackie, and sons Joe and John, operate Mountain Home, Idaho-based Flying H Farms, which perhaps stands for “Flying Harper” since the family is always on the run trying to grow their operation and meet a lofty annual return.
“Each year, we’re looking for an 8.5% return on our investment farm-wide,” Harper says. “We feel that is a very good goal. Sometimes we beat the heck out of it; sometimes we don’t make it. Right now, we’re having a hard time showing any margin at all because everything is down,” he said earlier this year.
But their operation’s diversity has helped, and that’s one of the reasons they started growing spearmint a couple years ago. “We did some testing, and it worked pretty good,” says Harper, who notes that they grow mint for oils.
Swapping cows for electricity
Trying to keep their agricultural portfolio as diverse as possible complicated a decision in fall 2010 to sell their cowherd so they would have the financial resources to develop desert land into farm ground, which would bolster their acreage for potatoes and other crops.
“We were renting range at the time, and the cows were very expensive to run, especially during winter. I love animals and got my college degree in animal science, but we needed money to run a 2 ½-mile power line to some land we had purchased and wanted to develop,” Harper says.
“The power line was going to cost us $200,000-plus, and we figured we could sell the cows and not have to go to the bank,” he notes. “We got moving on the project, and we were farming that ground the following spring. Each power pole represents five cows.”
Harper says the ground is excellent for farming, especially with the addition of composted dairy manure, and having some extra deeded land gives them a feeling of security.
“We only own about a fourth of what we farm,” says Harper, who grew crops for nearly 20 years before being able to purchase his first deeded land. “We still chase rented ground pretty hard, but that’s what we’ve had to do to succeed. We’re looking for ground all the time, all over everywhere.”
Flying H Farms is spread out 40 miles, which does bring challenges. But, as Harper says, “That’s the only way I’ve ever known it.”
The 63-year-old Harper says that his dream to become a farmer would not have happened without the support of his wife, Jackie.
“She taught school for 25 years, and that kept us in insurance and groceries. She retired from that job and now helps with the farm,” Harper says. “She is director of peace and harmony; she makes sure that all of us are still friends at the end of each business day.”
Tomorrow learn more about how Harper got into farming, it's an interesting approach.