Atchley Farm grows certified seed potatoes
By Heather Smith Thomas
For the Capital Press
ASHTON, Idaho — The Atchley farm in eastern Idaho is 15 miles from Wyoming and 45 miles from Montana at the end of the Snake River Valley.
“My grandfather homesteaded here in 1901. My grandmother homesteaded nearby in 1902. Later they married and combined farms,” Clen Atchley says.
Today the main crop is seed potatoes, but they also raise hybrid seed canola and cattle. It’s a family farm; daughter Laura runs the potato operation and son-in-law Clay Pichard handles the cattle operation.
“My wife Emma grows the first generation of potatoes in the greenhouse. The next year we plant them in the field as nuclear generation, and increase them to up to G-2 and sometimes G-3,” Clen says.
The seed comes from the University of Idaho.
“They have a gene bank of more than 300 varieties,” Emma explains. “The university produces plant tissue cultures as a service to the potato industry.”
It can take as long as four years to produce the final seed product. Most of the crop is under contract to farmers in Idaho, Washington and Oregon before it’s planted.
“With each variety we grow several generations in the field and keep them separate in storage to make sure we don’t mix up generations or varieties,” she says.
“The certification process for seed potatoes is intensive, run by Idaho Crop Improvement Association, an independent third party,” Laura says. “We go through two visual summer inspections; they walk through the fields, marking potential viruses. ... They look for signs of disease, bacteria, chemical damage from spray.
“When we harvest potatoes in the fall, samples from every lot are sent to Hawaii to be tested for any viruses they might have,” she says.
“When we load them on trucks to send to growers at planting time, a federal-state inspector is here, cutting potatoes, looking for diseases, making sure the potatoes are making the grade we sold them at,” Clen says. “Potatoes are a 13-month-per-year program because we’re planting and shipping at the same time.”
“We grew 900 acres of seed potatoes, some wheat, and 850 acres of hybrid canola last year. To grow canola seed, you plant males and females. It requires a hive of bees for every acre of canola to pollinate the crop,” Clen says.
“We plant a row of males and the equivalent of 2 rows of female plants, and use a grain combine for harvest. You swath the female plants and use beaters to grind up the males so you don’t get any of that seed,” he explains.
They grow some alfalfa hay for their cattle.
“We’ve been increasing our cow numbers so we no longer sell much hay,” Laura says. “We have 30 registered Charolais cows and the rest are mainly Hereford-Angus crosses.” Most of the cows are wintered on a ranch they bought near Hollister in southern Idaho, where there’s less snow. They can graze through winter with just a little protein supplement. The older cows and heifers stay on the farm and are fed hay.
She and Clay have two children — Catie 5, and Carter 2. The kids like to tag along, and Catie is starting to drive the feed pickup. The whole family loves what they do.
Clen says his daughter got the same “genetic defect” he got from his dad and grandfather — a love of farming. “We just can’t get away from the potatoes!” he says.
Clen and Emma Atchley
Founded: Early 1900s
Crops grown: Seed potatoes, seed canola, wheat, cattle
Acreage: 5,000 acres