MANHATTAN, Mont. – Martin Kimm’s roots in Montana potato production trace back to 1950 when his dad, Stanley, immigrated to Manhattan, Mont., from the Netherlands. After sometime working for a local potato grower, Stanley decided to go out on his own and in 1958 he planted 28 acres of commercial potatoes. His operation grew from there and he eventually transitioned to growing seed potatoes around 1967.
Martin graduated high school in 1980 and came back to join his father on the farm, soon becoming an integral part of the family operation. A big shift came in 1986 when Martin and his brother began raising their own foundation seed potatoes, a practice the family still does to this day.
The family bought two sections of land out by Toston, Mont., in 1998, and in 2006, they were able to expand their holdings in that area. Farming in two different locations presents a unique set of challenges, but Martin pointed out it also helps diffuse disease risk, especially when it comes to certified seed potatoes.
In 2013, Martin’s son, Taylor, joined Kimm Brothers Farming, LLC. The following year, Brett Heidema began joining up as a partner as well, and shortly after, Martin bought his brother out of the operation. Although the faces of Kimm Brothers Farming where slightly changed, growing premier seed potatoes was still the goal.
Raising certified seed potatoes in the state of Montana is not for the faint of heart because Montana adheres to strict quality standards. Growers in Montana essentially can raise their seed potatoes one of two ways: they can acquire the potatoes as generation two and raise them through generation three, or they can raise their seed potatoes from the beginning, as meri-stems and carry them through all the way to generation three.
Martin, Taylor and Brett choose to do the latter.
They acquire their meri-stem plants from a neighbor, who purchases them from MSU and develops them in his greenhouse. The tubers that are harvested from there are referred to as nuclears, which Kimm Brothers Farming plants on six acres over by Bridger, Mont.
The nuclears are planted in late April and are ready for harvest by the middle of August. This step in the seed potato journey is rather labor intensive as each individual tuber must be harvested by hand and individually bagged. This past year, Kimm Brothers Farming and their partner on the Bridger acreage harvested about 18,000 plants between them.
It does, in fact, take a small army to harvest that many plants by hand.
“We have help from the local FFA and a girls’ volleyball team from Bridger and Fromberg. We had like 40 plus kids out there helping us do all this,” Martin said.
Once harvested, the individual nuclears are packed and loaded onto reefer trucks. The refrigeration helps prevent them breaking down, Martin explained. Once home at the Manhattan farm, the nuclears are stored until the next spring. At that point, each individual plant is cut into smaller pieces and then treated.
The cut up nuclear plants are then ready to be planted as families. It is practice to leave a three-foot space between each family group, making it easy to identify and eliminate any diseases that might stem from the nuclear or “mother plant.” The tubers harvested from this process are known as generation one.
The following year, Kimm Brothers Farming plants their home-grown generation one potatoes, which are harvested as generation two. They plant some of their own generation two potatoes, but they also sell some to other Montana producers. Montana is known as a quarantined state, meaning all seed potatoes grown must originate from within. The next seed potato in the process, known as generation three, is what is sold to commercial producers across the U.S.
Martin admits management plays a huge role in keeping all these steps in the growing process straight, especially since Kimm Brothers Farming raises two different varieties, Russet-Burbank and Ranger-Russet.
In total, Martin, Taylor and Brett farm a little over 430 acres of seed potatoes, but it equals only a small part of their entire operation, which totals 3,000 irrigated acres. In addition to their potatoes, they also raise alfalfa, silage corn, barley and spring wheat.
But it’s not just the farming and the simple love of the land that keeps Martin doing what he’s doing with his son and farming partner. An ongoing part of the work they do is cultivating relationships with the growers that buy their seed potatoes.
“Once a year we try and make sure to visit most every farm we sell to,” Martin said.
How Martin finds the time to raise seed potatoes, farm an additional 2,500 acres of irrigated crop land and crisscross the states visiting growers that purchase his seed, may forever remain a mystery. What is known, however, is an immigrant from the Netherlands laid a foundation and from that humble beginning Martin, Taylor and Brett have come to produce top quality seed potatoes.