Family-owned seed-potato company thrives on flanks of Grand Mesa
AUSTIN — All this time, you probably thought you only had two, maybe three choices when potatoes were on the grocery list.
Russets, reds or maybe even Yukon Golds, in five-pound bags. And that’s it.
But the folks at Potato Garden want people to know that limiting themselves to only a few varieties is a half-baked idea, and the world of potatoes is much bigger than most gardeners imagine.
This family-owned seed-potato company, perched above 5,000 feet in elevation on the southern flank of Grand Mesa, grows and sells 59 different varieties, mostly for small farmers and home gardeners. Craig and Dawna Rockey run the business with Craig’s father, Verlin, and their eight children (soon to be nine): Josh, Caleb, Elizabeth, Gracie, Benjamin, Justin, Joseph and Timothy.
Don’t be fooled by the inconspicuous building and the small field out back — this place isn’t small potatoes. They sell certified seed to more than 5,000 customers per year, and last year sold 45,000 pounds of Yukon Gold potato seed alone. They’re even a little bit famous — Mike Rowe from the Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs” once came to film his show at their farm and proved that potato farming is indeed, a dirty job.
Producing certified seed potatoes means the Rockeys propagate varieties that are certified to be free of disease, fungus or bacterial problems common among potatoes. And the array of potatoes is dazzling, with mouthwatering names such as Russian Banana, Garnet Chili and Rose Finn Apple.
The potato farming business is tricky, and the seed-potato farming business is even trickier. Potatoes are susceptible to a wide range of disease, bacteria and fungus problems, as well as pests. Professionals are always working to develop more resistance to the problems potatoes attract.
Like any monoculture (the cultivation of a single crop in an area) potatoes have attracted more disease and insect problems over the years, which challenge growers. That’s one of the reasons that certified potato seed companies are so important. They maintain a “clean” line of problem-free potatoes, so growers have a reliable supply.
The first generations of seed potatoes are the most problem-free, but eventually seed stock “runs out,” according to Craig. Growers are faced with finding varieties resistant to the problems that come with growing genetically identical seed year after year, or with finding “clean” versions of the genetics of varieties they want to continue growing.
That’s where science comes in. The Rockeys use a method called “micropropagation” or “tissue culture,” in which they harvest new cells from the eye of a potato. These cells are planted in test tubes, containing a gel medium with nutrients so sprouts will grow. Each in-vitro plant grows five leaf nodes, and then each of those nodes is planted separately in a flat of soil to grow in a greenhouse. These plants eventually grow to produce seed potatoes at the Rockeys’ Milk Ranch property, located at Powderhorn above Gunnison.
“We couldn’t keep the viruses out of them in a conventional setting, so I started experimenting,” Verlin said. The method of extracting the clean cells before problems emerge has worked well for them over the years.
“A lot of the time, the new cell growth is ahead of the virus, so there’s a chance you can get clean stock,” Craig said. Agricultural scientists can test new plants to check for viruses, and once they’re cleared, they can be planted and grown into certified seed.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture visits the facility to perform tests at least four times a year, and if contaminated seed is found, it’s destroyed. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the nuclear seed is clean, Craig said. This process is vital for preventing problems later for growers and gardeners — the kind of problems that destroy entire fields and cause crop failures.
“It’s important to keep a foundational stock that’s clean so we can keep growing the varieties we like,” Craig said. Sometimes this means resurrecting heritage varieties such as Red Pontiac, which has been around since the 1940s, and is susceptible to most common potato diseases. The Rockeys do the work in their lab to keep the seed clean, so people can continue to grow and eat the potatoes they want.
The Milk Ranch location serves as what Craig calls the “foundation seed center” for the operation. Because it’s so isolated, the Rockeys are able to avoid many of the disease and pest problems that occur near other potato growers. On these three acres, the Rockeys cultivate the first generation of their seed potatoes. And at 9,500 feet in elevation, they grow potatoes much higher than most of their customers, and have less aphid problems that would normally spread disease.
The second generation of seed is sold to Craig’s cousin Sheldon’s farm, located in the San Luis Valley, widely regarded as Colorado’s potato-growing region. Craig ends up buying the potatoes back after they’ve produced for three to five generations, then sells them as certified seed. The potential for production is exponential. One test tube of in-vitro potato plants results in 10 plants in the field, which produces an acre of seed. That acre of seed multiplies to 10 acres the next year. By the third generation, that one test tube has grown to produce 100 acres of seed.
Sending the seed potatoes to the town of Center seems fitting, since Craig’s grandfather started growing potatoes there in 1938, during the Great Depression. He grew potatoes “because that’s what the neighbors grew,” Verlin said.
Generations later, Craig and Dawna’s children help with the business and know quite a bit about potatoes themselves.
Thirteen-year-old Josh wants his grandpa to help him develop a new potato that is yellow on the outside and purple on the inside, “and I want it to be big, so it can be a baked potato.”
Elizabeth, 10, can’t decide on her favorite, but she wants to be a chef someday and she’ll definitely make good use of potatoes in her cuisine.
Choosing a favorite potato is nearly impossible for this family. Craig prefers German Butterball, Dawna likes Purple Viking. As a whole, the family seems to prefer waxier, buttery potatoes, but “it depends on what you’re using it for,” Elizabeth said. Some are better for roasting, frying, mashing or baking. Each one has a use.
Potato Garden’s most popular potato, by far, is the Yukon Gold, but the purple potatoes are gaining some fame because of their high-antioxidant levels (“I had a few customers order Purple Majesty because they saw it on Dr. Oz,” Craig said).
Overall, the Rockeys are thrilled to have customers trying new potatoes and coming back year after year, pleased with their successful harvests. They like to educate others about their sustainable farming practices — they use compost instead of chemical fertilizers, plant cover crops, rotate crops and utilize beneficial microbes for soil health.
Verlin and Craig’s approach to potato farming is a combination of science, problem-solving and a quest to care for the soil so its health, in turn, provides good yields for the farmer. One of Verlin’s goals in the business is to empower people to grow their own, healthful food and take control of their nutrition.
The Rockeys also strive to introduce gardeners to different potatoes they may not have seen before. It’s a slow process, they admit. “We helped introduce the Yukon Gold variety to the consumer market, and look at it now,” Verlin said. They’ve also developed their own patented varieties, such as Red Rebel and Rockey Rose.
Since then, more fingerling and heirloom potatoes have hit the shelves, and Verlin sees some progress.
“We were touted to fail because we went away from the russets and reds, but we’re changing the whole public perception of potatoes,” he said.
For information about Potato Garden, go to potatogarden.com.