RONAN, Mont. – With the towering Mission Mountains and Flathead Lake acting as the backdrop, Lake Seed, Inc., a generational farm, strives to raise good quality crops all while being good stewards of the land. Operated by brothers David, Dan, Tim and Pat Lake, the operation has proudly raised seed potatoes for the last 80 years in the fertile soils of the Mission Valley.
The four Lake brothers all play an integral role in the day-to-day farming operations with duties divided amongst them all. Brother and co-owner, David Lake, smiles as he admits farming with family especially comes in handy when dealing with a labor-intensive crop like potatoes.
“Family farming has its challenges, but we are darn good when we all get headed in the right direction,” David said with a chuckle.
Lake Seed consists of a little over 2,800 farmed acres, all of them irrigated. The majority of the acres, about 2,300, are usually planted into crops like small grains and peas. Some are used for seed and the rest are commercially grown. The remaining 550 acres or so are divided between varieties of seed potatoes.
“Our main varieties are Russet Burbank and Ranger Russet. We raise them for seed and they go to growers in Washington and a few go as far away as Wisconsin,” he said.
David went on to explain that both Russet Burbank and Ranger Russet potatoes are used in the processing market and are mainly used to make the coveted French fry. In addition to those two main varieties, Lake Seed also grows the occasional up-and-coming, experimental seed potato variety.
Like most seed potato growers, the Lakes have a vigorous plant rotation program, only growing potatoes on a particular field one out every four or five years. This practice allows the field to rest and recuperate, David explained.
“It’s all about the ground. We have to take care of it, that’s the bottom line,” he added.
Potatoes are a hardy crop in some ways, but in other instances, they can be rather finicky and sensitive, especially when it comes to diseases. In an effort to mitigate virus risk, Lake Seed has their own lab facility where they can produce their own tissue plantlet cultures.
The cultures are developed in a sterile environment and from there they are planted in a greenhouse where they become known as a “nuclear.” After growing in the greenhouse for a season, the nuclears are harvested and planted the following season out in a field as “generation one.” Each time the seed potato is harvested, stored and re-exposed to the environment, it gains a generation. The Lake family raises seed potatoes through generation three. Generation three seed potatoes are then sold to commercial growers out of state.
With so many different aspects and generations in production, life is always busy on the Lake’s operation. David says labeling is very important when it comes to separating generations and varieties from one another and keeping everything straight.
In short, on a typical year, chaos in many ways is just part of the norm for a certified seed potato operation. Even after so many years of growing experience, nothing could have prepared Lake Seed for the havoc caused by COVID-19 in 2020.
“It was a real shocker. We had a great crop last year. It was looking like it was going to be quite valuable and we had a lot of demand for it in January, February and even into March. We were stressing how we were going to fill our contracts and then COVID hit and the demand just dropped,” David reflected.
With the food service industry slowed down due to the pandemic, demand for most ag commodities saw an exponential decline. For some potato producers, without a contract to fill they were forced to disk under entire fields, taking a complete loss on the crop. Fortunately for the Lakes, they didn’t have to do that.
“Before we knew it we were sitting with up to 30,000 bags of potatoes weighing 100 pounds each that we had absolutely no market for. We gave a lot away to food banks and whoever wanted potatoes got them. We ended up hauling the rest to a rancher who put them in his silage pit,” David said
David figures their operation took an estimated $250,000 to $500,000 financial hit before it was all said and done.
Looking down the road, there is still a lot of unknowns. Potatoes are not a subsidized crop, so the growers are used to assuming a certain amount of risk. In addition, David pointed out potatoes are a crop that is constantly facing criticism and fall-out from fad food trends like the Atkins and Keto diets.
“We are on the conveyor belt just kind of keeping our heads down. Just like any other Montana grower, we’ve got to keep on keeping on,” he said.
Potatoes may be a labor-intensive crop, but nevertheless, they are essential both to diets and to the economy. The four Lake brothers of Lake Seed, Inc., get to wake up every day and farm in some of Montana’s most pristine lands. They do that to ensure consumers can have French fries with their hamburgers and mashed potatoes with their steak dinner. What a blessing!