Moses Lake, WA 98837, USA

Farm Family of the Year: A shallow crop and deep roots at Thaemert Farms

By EMRY DINMAN, For the Basin Business Journal

Sixty-two years ago, the Thaemerts couldn’t have imagined that their family farm would be in the position it is today.

Their potatoes loom large over the Northwest market, their product is shipped across the country and world, and the Thaemerts were recently recognized by the Quincy Farmers Consumer Awareness Committee as the 2018 Quincy Farm Family of the Year. With over 4,000 acres of potato growing land in their name or else contracted out to them, Thaemert Farms is the single-largest chipping potato producer in Washington state.

Business is good, but it took every one of those 62 years to get here.

In 1956, Cleo and Rita Thaemert moved from Twin Falls, Idaho to Grant County with two young children, some old equipment and $75 between them. They came for the opportunity to grow, chasing their own small slice of the American-dream of self-sufficiency. It started slowly, with a patch of land the family rented, but things picked up quickly after a loan enabled them to purchase land of their own.

The land was covered in sagebrush when Cleo and Rita bought it, but the Thaemerts pulled and burned the shrubs, opening up the land to farming. Though the Thaemerts had started by growing beans on their rented land, they quickly made the transition to potatoes.

They were, after all, from Idaho, Rita said, and Cleo knew how to grow them. All the while, the Thaemerts were raising their children, Todd, Greg, Kevin and Debbie. As both a mother and a farmer, Rita was a prolific multi-tasker, Greg said. To Rita, that kind of environment was perfect to raise hard-working children and a tightly-knit family.

“It’s awful hard to find family farms anymore, but we have one,” Rita said.

While she and Cleo built their farm from nothing but hard-work and hope, their boys elevated it to the scale it is today, Rita said.

In large part, the staggering scale of the Thaemert operation is due to a happy accident that ended with the Thaemerts landing Frito-Lay, one of the largest snack-making conglomerates in the world, as a client for their chipping potatoes.

At one point, Frito-Lay had all of their chipping potatoes contracted on the coast, until heavy rains prevented the coastal suppliers from harvesting the potatoes necessary to fill the snack-maker’s orders. Frito-Lay reached out to Thaemerts, whose location — not only in the rain shadow East of the Cascades, but in the optimal environment of the Columbia Basin — made the farm a more reliable producer.

It’s a mixture of great ingredients that make the region so great for potato farming, Greg said, including good sandy soil, abundant water, and a location far enough north to have an optimal day length.

“I don’t know that if mom and dad had settled anywhere else, that we would be where we are today,” Greg said.

Frito-Lay was so impressed by the quality product that the Thaemerts could supply almost year-round that the family farm has become the major supplier for the snack-maker’s Northwest operation. Chances are good that any Lay’s chips bought in a Washington store was made with potatoes from the Thaemert’s farm.

The Thaemerts don’t just supply the Northwest, either; if problems arise in Frito-Lay’s supply-chain in a different region of the country, the Thaemerts’ steady supply of spuds can be relied on to fill orders. Later in the year, shipments of Thaemert potatoes will exit the country via the Port of Seattle and spend 30 days floating across the Pacific in massive cargo ships to Thailand and Vietnam.

Chipping potatoes, bred for to be perfectly translatable into a crisp bag of chips, are something of a specialty crop, Greg said.

“There’s only two or three growers in the state who do it, and we’re by far the biggest,” Greg said. “It’s more difficult to grow and store than with a regular baking potato. It’s very thin skinned, and it’s high in solid.”

Storage is also trickier with chipping potatoes, Greg said, as they need a warm environment that keeps glucose levels low. If sugar content is too high, the chip can become dark as it fries — unacceptable for the nearwhite ideal of Lay’s iconic chip.

Today, the three sons all work within their own niche. Todd grows potatoes, Greg does quality control, and Kevin runs the business side of things. Though their sister, Debbie, doesn’t work for the farm, she supports the family too, Rita said.

Today, the three sons all work within their own niche. Todd grows potatoes, Greg does quality control, and Kevin runs the business side of things. Though their sister, Debbie, doesn’t work for the farm, she supports the family too, Rita said.

“She often makes us dinner, because we’re too busy,” Rita said with a chuckle.

The whole Thaemert clan has in one way or another contributed to the farm’s overall success, Greg said, and though Cleo passed away last October, the next generation of Thaemerts is poised carry on his farm’s legacy. Todd’s son, Jason, has taken over a huge amount of responsibility at the farm already, Greg said, and Kevin’s stepson helps keep their operations compliant with the guidelines of Pepsi-Co, which owns Frito-Lay.

“Now the third-generation is coming along,” Greg said.

After all this time in the region, Greg said, for the family to be recognized by the community as the Farm Family of the Year was a humbling honor.

“We’ve been here for 62 years, and the Columbia Basin, especially the Quincy-George farming area, has been really good to us,” Greg said. “We’ve thrived here, and getting recognized with this felt like it showed that, in some small way, we’ve been good for the Columbia Basin too.”