MECOSTA — Labor Day weekend is typically the last hurrah of summer parades and barbecues. Families gather around the picnic table to celebrate the last of the long, golden summer Michigan days and often include a bag of Lays or Better Made potato chips. The likelihood the potatoes used to produce those bags of potato chips were grown in or near Montcalm County is high.
Sackett Potatoes in Mecosta is one of six potato farms in Montcalm and Mecosta counties that grow potatoes exclusively for potato chip production for Frito Lay, Snyder Lance, Utz Quality Foods, Herr’s Food, Grandma Shearer’s and Better Made. Alan Sackett is a partner of Sackett Potatoes and as the fourth generation of his family has been farming for 60 years. His sons are currently at the helm of the farm in Mecosta while the business also oversees farms in North Carolina and most recently, Sackett’s grandson runs a farm in Illinois.
While Idaho may come to mind when thinking of potatoes, the varieties of potatoes served as a dinner side are not the same as those grown for potato chips. It is Michigan, specifically Montcalm and Mecosta counties that lead the country in potatoes for potato chip production. Sackett Potatoes has been part of that legacy for more than 100 years when Edward Sackett started his farm near McBride in 1904. Alan Sackett started working for his dad at the young age of 12 when his grandfather retired in 1955.
Sackett Potatoes, located on 7 Mile Road in Mecosta, was established in 1987 as an offshoot of the original farm located near McBride. The Sackett family has been growing potatoes since Edward Sackett started farming in 1904.
Traditionally, farms were passed down to the eldest son of a family. In Alan’s generation, his youngest brother, Larry, remained on the farm in McBride. When the Ore-Ida processing plant closed in 1987, a farm in Mecosta became available for purchase. Because Alan’s sons wanted to expand and own farms of their own, they purchased what is now Sackett Potatoes on 7 Mile Road.
“The people who were farming this farm could not get the operating money unless they had a contract and they didn’t have a contract,” Sackett said. “It was available to us because we had a contract for potato chips and the wherewithal to grow them.”
In an average year, Sackett Potatoes grows and ships out approximately 1.35 million hundredweight or 135 million pounds of potatoes. Because of such high yields, Sackett owns and operate numerous warehouses for storage and has the ability to store 1.1 million hundredweight or 110 million pounds of potatoes. The process of storing potatoes is specialized and another reason the crop is so plentiful in Montcalm County.
Sackett impressed more than once the difficulty and cost that is involved in growing and harvesting potatoes. However, the conditions in the area are ideal for growing the eight to 10 varieties of potatoes used in chip production. The local soil is sandy, there is ample access to water and the farmers are willing to put in the hard work it takes to grow them. Heading just west of Montcalm County into Kent County and northeast into Gratiot County and the soil is largely comprised of clay, which renders it useless in growing potatoes.
Sackett also recognizes a willingness to work with other farmers as the key to success with potato growing locally. He also sees the trend of partnerships increasing as time progresses and the need for ag industry services falls on the shoulders of the farmers, such as crop dusting and machinery production. At one time, Sackett joined forces with Anderson Brothers, Main Farms and Potato Services in Edmore to have their potatoes sold to Frito Lay. These farms were in a marketing partnership for 15 to 20 years and while the marketing partnership was disbanded, it is now a partnership providing aerial application, known as Heritage Ag.
“Ten to 12 years ago, the company that makes potato harvesters in Vestaburg went broke and a bunch of us went together and salvaged it and got the company back to work,” Sackett stated. “We needed to salvage that business now known as Advanced Farm Equipment because it provides equipment and services for the potato industry.”
Heritage Ag — a flying service out of Lakeview — provides a necessary service to harvest a successful potato crop. The particular services provided by the flying service is one that can prove to be a bit controversial and one Sackett wants to educate residents of, thus removing the fear of the unknown. There was significant rainfall in July, which can be detrimental to potato crops. Rain leaches fertilizer out of the soil and can also create ideal conditions for fungal growth, which can lead to blight. Late potato blight was the cause of the Great Potato Famine in Ireland in the late 1840s and early 1850s.
“Late blight to potatoes is like cancer to people — it can be managed, it can be controlled, but it can be a disaster,” Sackett remarked.
Prior to flying the planes over the crops, the farmers have scouts who walk the fields or “fight the vines” as Sackett described it, to determine what factors may be affecting potato growth and health. Sackett realizes that homeowners dislike having the planes fly over their property because they are often at a very low altitude and spraying substances that to the average person are of unknown composition.
“The chemicals are safe that we use now and use them in the way we should,” Sackett stated. “There was a time when they were not very good and it is a huge, huge part of taking care of our crop.”
Insects can also prove to be problematic for farmers and Sackett said they only use insecticide when scouts have determined that there is an issue with pests. Like fungicide, farmers only apply chemicals when it is deemed necessary to ensure a successful crop. This part of crop management is just another piece that adds to the cost of growing potatoes.
The factors that can render a crop or a farmer successful or not include land, markets, people and facing adversity that comes with the unpredictable nature that comes with farming. Sackett commented that the biggest difference between a good farmer and a poor farmer is how they deal with their problems. Like many, if not all farmers, Sackett also acknowledges that Mother Nature is a farmer’s biggest competitor. But despite the expense and risk that can be involved with farming, Sackett couldn’t imagine his life being any other way.
“Farmers are a different species and we seem to always want to do more, we want to be successful, but for me, I think it is family (that is the most rewarding),” Sackett said with a deep sense of pride. While laughing, Sackett added that the greatest challenge in his career also was family saying, “Family businesses don’t often survive, so we have been able to get past that family stuff and survive for a long time.”
Family and community involvement are big components to what Sackett deems important and defining of success. At 74, Sackett has scaled back his involvement with the day-to-day operations of the farm, but that doesn’t mean he is any less active in the farm and community. He often provides educational tours for groups and enjoys offering business and financial advice. Sackett also knows that by hiring from the community, Sackett employees have the income to buy houses and spend money with local businesses, returning it to the community.