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Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Minor

https://safs.msu.edu/blog/sackett-potato-farm

Sackett Potato Farm

What started as a family potato operation in 1904 has grown to a 16,700-acre business that produces soybeans, wheat, field corn and seed corn in Michigan, North Carolina, and Illinois. Sackett Potatoes supplies its multiple varieties of spuds to Frito-Lay, Snyder’s and Campbell Soups, but in the past few years, the company is looking not only at its yield, but also at its stewardship of the land. The company has been investing in the health of their soils, relying less on chemical inputs and more on biological processes and holistic techniques. While Sackett hasn’t seen the fruit of their environmentally-conscious efforts quite yet, they’re hoping that the family’s future generations will see the rewards of being less chemically-based and more biologically-based.

The smell of salty, delicious potato chips fills the air as you pop open a bag for a quick snack. Potato chips have always been your guilty pleasure, but rarely do you think about what these chips are made of. The Northern Plain Potato Growing Association state that “the average American eats over 4 pounds of potato chips each year”, (NPPGA, 2011). While millions of consumers eat potato chips, many of us never take the time to think about the farmer who worked tirelessly to grow the spuds we love.

Sackett Potatoes has been growing potatoes in Mecosta, Michigan for thirty years, harvesting 3,700 acres annually. The Sackett family has been farming potatoes in Michigan since 1904 and has now grown to a multi-state operation with more than $100 million in assets. The atmosphere is much different than one would expect of a potato farm, with an ornate office complete with televisions and granite topped desks. Though these aspects of the farm do not draw away from the raw, agricultural business that is run here.

This potato company grows thousands of acres of chip potatoes that are contracted to Frito-Lay, Campbell Soup and many more companies. Along with this extensive potato operation the Sackett family also grows several acres of seed corn for Pioneer. The essence of modern technology can be seen throughout their potato warehouse that in complete with self-ventilating and carbon dioxide monitoring systems, potato washing machines and large conveyor belts. Not only does this farm have 14 bays for storing 130 million pounds of potatoes, they also have their own fabrication room to build new parts and equipment to help the farm run smoother.

Alan, one of the owners, was very open to talking about past practices that may not have been the most sustainable in regards to environmental health. With pressures to grow more crops with better yields, Sackett Potatoes has previously used chemical-driven inputs to support their field corn, seed corn, wheat/oats, soybeans and 6,700 acres of potatoes. They resorted to fumigation methods to exterminate pests and diseases in the soil, but they learned that in doing so, they were also killing the good microbes in the soil. The company is now realizing that soil health has become a major issue that must be addressed; and as a result, they no longer fumigate, but instead use biological processes to improve soil economy and health. Alan explained that the have started using cover crops like rye and radishes, limiting tillage and using compost has been their way of investing capital into the land. They haven’t fumigated in approximately 4 years, and with the help of a soil health consultant, the company hopes their investment in the land will help them transition to a better environment for better yields. Alan also understands that this might be a long-term investment as he explains that they have not seen the rewards of their efforts yet but are continuing to work on getting their costs and expenses in balance with their efforts.

Sackett

There was pride in Alan’s voice as he told the group about how his great-grandfather started the company from $75,000 worth of assets, and now the value of the farm is worth $100 million. This includes the $40 million worth of equipment it takes to run an operation this large. One wouldn’t guess that their $27 million budget would be hard to reach with one look at the new office building and new ventilated storage rooms to total 14 overall, but Alan says that the company has needed to develop partnerships and shared ownerships “just to survive”. While Frito Lay, Great Lakes Potato Chip Co., Snyder's-Lance Inc., and others are not involved in the day-to-day events on the farm, they do ultimately determine what the end product is they wish to purchase: a well-stored, undamaged potato that is ideal for making white potato chips. It is surprising to think that even an operation as large as Sackett’s feels the stress of economic hardship, but Alan hopes that producing additional cash crops, partnering, new storage and pre-season contracts will help this year’s harvest go as far as it can.

While it was quite evident that Sackett Potatoes was one of the largest operations in Mecosta, they still take the time to participate in many activities around the community. Alan talked for several minutes about how his employees work to be courteous neighbors to surrounding farms and houses. They try to work in quiet hours of operation and not tread on others property. Sackett Potatoes also supports local events such as the county fair and youth chapters via donations, tours and participations. It is very obvious that this family takes a lot of pride in the community they live in. Continuing their social engagement, the Sackett Potatoes works with a local leadership group to educate members on the potato and agriculture industry through tours and workshops. This multi-million-dollar company even takes time to give tours and presentations to residents of the local retirement homes.

The Sackett Potato company has big plans for the future, but with Alan’s age he is leaving many of these plans up to his sons and grandson. This company is a family partnership that includes Alan, his two sons and one grandson which the farm will be left to once Alan retires from of the operation. In the future, the Sackett family hopes to continue research into improving their soil health in the most economical way while working with a broad range of consultants. The operation will also make an ongoing effort to integrate cover crops and pest management to maximize yield in the best possible way. All of these things are done in hopes to prepare for the future while minimizing risk.

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