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Published March 12, 2012, 12:15 PM

Spud man

KARLSTAD, Minn. — For Justin Dagen, growing potatoes involves more than production. Dagen, a Karlstad, Minn., seed potato farmer, believes that promoting the crop is as essential to the success of his operation as raising it. Earlier this year, Dagen was named Potato Man of the Year at the national Potato Expo in Orlando, Fla.

By: Ann Bailey , Agweek

KARLSTAD, Minn. — For Justin Dagen, growing potatoes involves more than production.

Dagen, a Karlstad, Minn., seed potato farmer, believes that promoting the crop is as essential to the success of his operation as raising it.

Earlier this year, Dagen was named Potato Man of the Year at the national Potato Expo in Orlando, Fla. Dagen received the honor, in part, because of his work to keep potatoes in the national school lunch program.

New rules proposed last fall by the U.S. Department of Agriculture would have eliminated potatoes in school breakfasts and reduced the amount in lunches.

“We realized it could have a huge impact on school lunches as well as the potato industry,” Dagen says. He and others in the industry worked to get the word out that potatoes are a healthy food, containing vitamins, such as C and minerals such as potassium.

“The experience reminded me that we have to be vigilant in getting our message across, educating legislators,” Dagen says. Because the American public’s connection to farming is dwindling, farmers must step up their efforts to get the word out about the crops they grow, he says. These days, many children don’t even have a grandpa who farms, let alone a parent, Dagen notes.

Farming for generations

But that isn’t the case for Dagen who is a fourth-generation farmer.

“I still farm the same quarter that my great-great grandfather did when he came in 1882 from southern Minnesota.”

Dagen took over the farm at age 17 in the fall of 1977 after his dad died of a massive heart attack. Though Dagen still was a teenager, his dad already had taught him a lot about hard work and potato production, he says.

“He was a fantastic role model for 17 years.”

Dagen credits the things his dad taught him about farming, the simpler potato marketing methods used in the 1970s and a stable farm economy for being able to assume operation of the 800-acre potato and small grains farm as a high school senior.

During the past 34 years, Dagen has expanded acreage to 2,000 and introduced sugar beets, corn, edible beans and soybeans into his rotation and eliminated wheat and barley. He grows seven red, white and russet seed potato varieties and sells them to farmers in the Red River Valley, central Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Challenges, opportunities

There have been some challenging times during his farming tenure, including dealing with crop diseases such as potato late blight, excessive rains and potato market consolidation. But instead of seeing those factors as reasons to quit farming, Dagen viewed them as opportunities, he says.

For example, when several of his customers quit growing potatoes, Dagen saw that as a chance to develop new customer relationships. He visits his customers’ farms during the year so he can gain an understanding of the kind of quality they expect.

Factors such as consolidation have made farming a much more complex business now than when he started and because there is a huge cash outlay each year, there is little margin for error, Dagen says.

“Years ago, we were flying a two-seater, now we’re flying a fighter jet where everything is coming at you much faster.”

No matter the speed, Dagen still enjoys the ride. He’s proud to be growing a product that has proven health benefits, he says.

“I like being a grower because I believe potatoes are an economical, delicious way to feed the world.”

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