With seed farms and production facilities in nine states, CSS Farms stretches across the U.S. and it prides itself on having a culture of “doing it right.”
Its vision statement includes a commitment toward “cultivating people, leadership and new technology,” as it seeks to be their customers’ preferred supplier. It also defines its core values as a commitment to excellence, teamwork, integrity, entrepreneurial drive, innovation and farming lifestyle.
For Laurie Widdowson, CSS marketing and development manager, that vision statement and core values are not mere filler material for the company website’s “About” section. They represent strong feelings that she and other CSS employees feel toward their company. CSS, she says, is a special organization that is devoted to quality.
In 1986, CSS began by the Carter and Spevak families in the small town of Watertown, South Dakota. Soon afterward, it expanded to Nebraska, Texas and other states, while creating new partnerships and building its customer base. Today, CSS operates on a total of 14,000 acres of farmland and employs 300 full-time employees through the year.
When Widdowson and other CSS management speak of company staff, they are particular about the words they use. They are not just “employing workers,” they are “cultivating” and “nurturing” them.
“It takes quality people to create a quality product,” she said. And in order to have quality people, a company must assist them in developing skills, leadership abilities and community activism. “Our communities are everything,” she said.
As part of nurturing staff, CSS sends its employees through training courses, such as annual agronomy programs. Leaders, researchers and workers gather for studies and discussion. They learn about the condition of the year’s potato crop, and they seek methods for improving their company.
Other employee education programs include studies in new technology and worker safety. Widdowson said that this learning is vital.
“This is how we go from good to great,” she said.
In addition to having top-notch people and programs to develop those people, CSS also concentrates on technology. Widdowson said that the company has excellent “clean seed protocols.” That is, it excels at keeping its product virus free.
“We make a large financial and personnel investment to accomplish,” she said. CSS strives to zero infection, even when legal requirements are less strict.
The CSS commitment to order is on display at its seed farm and sorting facility in Ione, Ore. The company moved into the location five years ago. Protective masks, booties and gloves are worn. Conditions are clean and tidy.
“We maintain a sterile environment here,” said Don Atwood, Ione seed farm storage manager, speaking of the operations at the Boardman sorting facility that he helps to oversee.
He explained that cleanliness is especially important for Ione operations, since that place deals in seed, rather than food product. Seed is grown in Ione, distant enough to avoid contamination from other potato growers. There, it produces chip, russet and specialty varieties on 750 acres before trucking them to a sorting facility in nearby Boardman.
Mick Peck, Ione seed farm manager, shares Atwood’s pride concerning cleanliness. He has been with the company five years, and he boasts of sterilization processes, employee safety and many other aspects of CSS. He is impressed by much of the company’s work, including the decision to begin operations in northeastern Oregon.
He started at CSS just when it was developing the concept of its current Ione work. Starting a seed farm just outside the Columbia Basin was ingenious, he said. Its position, upwind from other ag producers, provided low insect and disease pressure. This would be beneficial to making good seed, and this plan has turned out well, according to Peck.
“Many people were skeptical when our owners had the plan to grow seed potatoes this close to the Columbia Basin,” he said. “All of their reasons for why they thought it world work have turned out to be true.”
For Peck, the CSS foresight in knowing good opportunities is a large part of what makes it an excellent company. He is also impressed with the technology that preserves product, the professionalism of his coworkers, the long shipping schedule and the willingness to take chances on good opportunities.
“I feel really good about being here,” he said. “We all do.”