Interview with Art Seidl
One of the stalwarts in the Antigo area certified seed potato industry, Seidl Farms, Inc., has a long history of potato farming. Frank Seidl grew up on his parents’ (Art and Evelyn Seidl) dairy farm in Bryant, Wisconsin which also raised about 15 acres of table stock potatoes. Frank grew his first crop of potatoes 65 years ago in 1949. He was just 21 years old at the time and farmed 20 acres in Bryant. From 1950 up until 1980, the farm raised fresh and chipping potatoes, along with oats and clover.
In 1980, the farm began raising certified seed potatoes. Although Frank’s son, Art, was working in Dillon, Colorado at the time, son-in-law Jim Fassbender had been working on the farm since he graduated from high school in 1976. Jim married Frank’s daughter, Peggy, who continues to serve as the farm’s Secretary-Treasurer. Peggy handles all the bookkeeping for the farm. Jim’s son, Jeff, joined the farm after he graduated from high school in 2008.
Art rejoined the farm in 1985 and is now the President of Seidl Farms, Inc. Today the farm raises 1,000 acres of potatoes, green beans, sweet corn, peas, oats, winter wheat and barley. The 210 acres of certified seed potatoes include Atlantics, Goldrush, Red Norlands, Russet Norkotahs and Snowdens.
Art has been very active in the potato industry, serving on the Wisconsin Seed Potato Improvement Association (WSPIA) board of directors, including a term as President. He is a former Director on the Wisconsin Potato Industry Board, and has served as a Wisconsin representative on the United States Potato Board. He is a long-time member of the WSPIA and the WPVGA, and previously served on the WPVGA Vegetable Committee.
In the following interview, Art and Frank Seidl, along with Jim and Jeff Fassbender, give their thoughts on a number of issues related to the production of certified seed potatoes.
How did the potato growing season go for you this year, and how does your seed potato crop look?
What we dug and put into storage looks good right now. The growing season was a challenge from start to finish, though. We planted about ten days later than normal. We started planting on May 23 and finished on May 31, and there were decent conditions in that time period. Throughout the growing season, there were too many cloudy days—we really didn’t get many warm, sunny days this summer. Toward the end of the season we finally got some sunny weather and the crop bulked up nicely. We also had to irrigate a lot in July due to very dry conditions, but then by the first week of August it got very wet. We got seven inches of rain between August 29 and September 3. Then we got another two and a half inches of rain on September 4 and we had to wait another ten days to harvest. Everyone in the Antigo area was in the same boat. We had to leave about 12-15% of our potatoes in the field due to all the wet conditions. Once we finally started harvesting on September 16, we had very good conditions right through October 1st, when we finished. We actually struggled more with the oat harvesting due to the wet conditions than we did with the potatoes. Overall, I’m pleased with the quality and yields on our seed potato crop.
What do you think is the most important factor in being a successful seed potato grower?
The most important thing is to keep your seed clean.
You have to keep the diseases out, especially the viruses and late blight. I’m really hoping for very cold weather this winter to freeze all the potatoes that were left in the ground and prevent volunteers next spring. We went back out and used a field cultivator to lift up the potatoes that we didn’t harvest so they’ll freeze easier.
What do you think is the most critical aspect of seed potato harvesting?
I would say how you handle them is very critical. It’s very important to not bruise the potatoes during harvest. We’ve found that we get healthier potatoes when we dig them along with a little dirt or mud, rather than digging in dry conditions. The mud actually prevents bruising.
Have you made any significant changes to your seed growing operation in the last 5-10 years? If so, what?
We built a new shop and grading area in 2010. That has really improved our grading and loading capabilities. We also went to a 4-row Lenco harvester which has helped reduce bruising. We took the M-Table off the Lenco and replaced it with a multi-sep table that is not so aggressive on the potatoes—it really helps prevent bruising. We’ve also added auto-steer, which helps tremendously with planting accuracy. And we’ve upgraded and improved our irrigation systems, adding more pivots and swing arms.
What type of planter and harvester do you use and why?
We use a 4-row Kverneland cup planter. It’s low maintenance, easy to clean, and easy to make seed spacing changes. We’ve used the 4-row Lenco harvester for the past six years and it’s a lot more operator-friendly.
What do you see as the biggest challenge in the seed potato industry and what do you do to meet that challenge?
The biggest challenge is to keep the seed clean and free of disease. Some viruses are mutating and spreading and don’t show symptoms, which make them very difficult to manage. But we scout regularly and stay on a tight spray schedule of 5-7 days, depending on the disease pressure. We’ve also been using Stylet-Oil for PVY prevention.
Frank: Have the challenges of the potato industry changed over time? If so, how?
Yes, the industry has changed a lot over time.
We’re able to harvest a lot faster now than we used to; I remember we got our first mechanical harvester in 1966.
I can also remember loading boxcars with 100-pound bags of potatoes; now we can use a skid steer.
One of the biggest new challenges is in the area of food safety. We built our new grading and loading facility because of all the new rules and regulations on
food safety and traceability.
Frank: What’s the most important thing you learned in your long history of potato growing?
I would say the most important thing is to treat your help well. We’ve been fortunate to have good help over the years, and it’s probably because we treat them well.
Frank: What’s the best advice you could give another grower in regard to potato farming?
Don’t plant potatoes in humid weather. If you notice your concrete floors are sweating, don’t plant potatoes—they’ll melt in the ground. And don’t dig when it’s too hot—the potatoes will melt in storage. And don’t plant too many potatoes. Overproduction kills the market.