As R.D. Offutt Brooten Farm Manager Chris Strom surveys fields this cold, snowy April, he recalls many other growing seasons throughout his 29-year tenure that started the same way.
Strom is one member of the RDO Farm management team that is kicking off the 2022 growing season with nearly 1,000 cumulative years of service. From farm, regional and warehouse managers to agronomists and team leads, the average tenure of senior leaders working across 15 Midwest RDO and its partner farms is greater than 25 years.
Keith McGovern, President and 34-year member of R.D. Offutt Farms, said he is proud to have such long management tenure at the company that grows potatoes to be processed into french fries and other frozen products.
“Experience brings an advantage to understanding the complexities of farming,” McGovern said. “Our managers like Chris know each acre that we grow and have experienced a potato crop eight to 10 times on the same field. They understand the soil, subsoil and how water moves.”
Strom is one of three second-generation managers at RDO Farms, taking the reins after his father retired. While Strom knows the fields like the back of his hands, he relies on his team – and their expertise – to run a smooth operation.
“Our experience at the farm allows us to work well together to continually innovate, improve and adapt to changing conditions,” Strom said.
From agronomy to operations
Fifteen-year tenured agronomist William Mack has prepared for 2022’s growing season for months. He has poured over historical field information, analyzed soil testing data, reviewed crop history and yield results. He is tracking soil moisture data following last year’s drought and the winter’s precipitation.
“As we prepare for the 2022 crop, we look at each individual field as a team,” Mack said. “We discuss what varieties will thrive on which fields, what treatments are needed, how the crop has stored in the past, and any other situations we’ve encountered on a particular field.”
Mack’s experience at RDO Farms adds to the seven-member agronomy team’s overall tenure, which itself totals more than 100 collective years of service. Each farm has a dedicated agronomist who works closely with the farm management team throughout the growing season. Mack said as an agronomist, it’s hard to find another crop that provides the same degree of challenges year in and year out.
“There’s always something new to learn about growing potatoes,” Mack said. “From varying weather conditions and disease resistance, we balance agronomy with operations to produce and manage a successful crop.”
Getting potatoes to market
Long before the first seed potato is planted each spring, Regional Farm Finance Manager Clark Camilli is already thinking about harvest and selling potatoes to customers, and 2022 is no exception.
Following two seasons that were impacted by Covid-19 and current global events that are affecting the supply chain, Camilli spent the winter months talking with customers, fellow growers and industry organizations about seed, crop inputs and land rent costs.
“These discussions inform our negotiations on annual potato contracts, which include volume, variety, timing and price,” Camilli said.
Throughout the season, Camilli works closely with farm managers and the agronomy team on crop records to ensure contracts will be fulfilled. At the end of each season, Camilli coordinates financial meetings to evaluate results and make recommendations for the next crop. He said even though the cycle has proven repetitive during his 25-years of experience, every year is different.
“We’ve learned and documented so much over the years that as a management team, we are able to react to the uniqueness of each growing cycle – from rain, drought and disease, to volume, production and staffing,” Camilli said.
Family operation promotes longevity, opportunity for growth
According to Zippia, national resource leader in career information, 22 percent of farm managers stay in their jobs for more than 11 years; most farm managers – 25 percent – stay only one to two years.
McGovern credits the farm’s family culture and growth opportunities for the management team’s long tenure.
“Our farm started as a father and son operation, and remains family owned and operated today,” McGovern said. “We feel like a family because many of our team members are, in fact, also family members who’ve grown up on the farm and have been promoted into management positions.”
McGovern said farm managers typically start in entry level roles and grow into management positions through a combination of on-the-job training and development opportunities. Team members are provided with career path information and are encouraged to seek promotions throughout the company.
Heading into the 2022 growing season, McGovern said he’s eager to see what the season will bring, knowing there’s bound to be new challenges and opportunities, even for a team with decades of farming under its belt.
“We have one year of experience, 1000 different times,” McGovern said. “There are many variables in farming. Understanding data and using our experience to interpret that data is the art of farming.”