ELLENSBURG, Wash. — Don’t let the name fool you. At Better Tater Farms of Ellensburg, Wash., few potatoes are to be seen.
Owner Gary Diefenbach said he moved away from potatoes about a decade ago, and now mostly grows Timothy hay and alfalfa.
“I still grow them,” he said, though he produces only a single line of potatoes, alongside tomatoes, cabbages and other garden items, which his wife cans for the family.
Still, potatoes played a big part in the area’s history, he said, and have an important role in his family’s history.
His grandfather, Fred Diefenbach, a World War I veteran, started farming in Ellensburg in 1932, when the Bureau of Reclamation opened the Kittitas Irrigation Project.
He homesteaded 80 acres, and potatoes were among his crops, in addition to wheat and other grains.
Many of his neighbors also grew potatoes, up to the 1950s, when a slow decline began.
One thing that precipitated the fall of local potatoes was the expansion of irrigation in the Columbia Basin, which created greater competition throughout the region.
Even though fewer Ellensburg-area farmers planted potatoes, the Diefenbach family continued. In fact, they increased their production.
Diefenbach’s father, Robert Diefenbach, created new opportunities for the farm. He grew potatoes, and he processed the potatoes of other nearby farms during the 1970s. The farm became even more successful as it sold potatoes to chip companies. Nalley, Frito-Lay, Granny Goose, Bell Brand and other snack companies purchased Better Tater potatoes to make their chips.
Business was good, but it concerned Diefenbach when he took over operations.
“I got uneasy putting all of our eggs in one basket,” he said. “We were so dedicated to growing potatoes that all of our equipment was dedicated to growing potatoes.”
While it was profitable, he started buying equipment for hay, a move that proved wise.
Some large chip companies decided to buy potatoes from only a few large farms, rather than a bunch of smaller ones, and the potato contracts began drying up for Better Taters, a relatively small farm.
While this was happening, most other local potato farmers were also getting out of the business, many of them shifting to Timothy hay, which was becoming increasingly profitable.
Diefenbach said that he grew more hay and fewer potatoes.
One thing that he is not willing to turn his back on, however, is his farm’s name.
“It’s a funny thing,” he said. “People seem to remember us for that name.”
Better Tater Farms
Location: Ellensburg, Wash.
Owner: Gary Diefenbach
Date started: 1932.
Crops grown: Timothy hay, alfalfa, potatoes, tomatoes, cabbages, broccoli, parsnips, peas and corn.
Number of acres: 600