Its botanical name? Solanum tuberosum. Its generic vegetable name? Potatoes. Smash ’em, mash ’em, stick them in a stew.
Or, if you are Dave Sonnek, you can grow them in Faribault County. That is what Sonnek has done with his father, William, for the past 30 years.
Tucked away in the fields around Delavan hides Faribault County’s only potato farm which can only be reached by a minimum maintenance road. The 40-acre farm is home to some corn, soybeans, carrots, and onions as well, even some cows, but a good portion of the Sonnek farm is dedicated to ‘taters.’
Nine different varieties of ‘taters’, that is. At least this year. And, the crop is already looking good for the Sonnek farm.
William and his wife had three children: Marjorie (Chaffee), Margaret (Krieger) and Dave. They raised their troupe on a farm in Easton. That is, until Bill Verdoorn mentioned he was trying to sell his 50-year-old potato farm and its equipment.
“Somehow I convinced my dad to buy it,” Sonnek laughs. “And that was about 30 years ago.”
Now, both Dave and his 81-year-old father are still at it, planting and producing over 10,000 pounds of potatoes each year.
“My dad is retired, though. He retired when he was about 62 and now he just farms for the fun of it. He doesn’t have to deal with all the paperwork of the operation, he can just go plant in his tractor, and enjoy farming like he has always wanted to,” says Sonnek.
He also says there are pros and cons to owning a potato farm in southern Minnesota. One of those positives is having no competition in the county, which makes him in charge of his own market.
“But it’s different than other crops,” he says. “We can’t take this crop to the elevator, which means we have to bag it and ship it and sell it all ourselves.”
Sonnek describes a unique route that potatoes must take in order for the next generation of potatoes to come to fruition. In order for potatoes to be deemed safe and ready for the next season of seed potatoes, the potatoes are shipped to Hawaii for the winter, where they stay in a warm climate to be tested before heading back to Minnesota during the planting and harvesting season.
The potato season is fairly short, by the way. Sonnek says planting begins around May 15 and harvest is sometime around Labor Day. The potatoes are sprayed as often as other crops as they have a plethora of pests that enjoy potatoes as much as humans do. There are Colorado potato beetles, potato aphids, beet leafhoppers, and potato tuber moths, just to name a few.
However, Sonnek says Faribault County is as good a place as any to plant potatoes, as most of the varieties of potatoes he grows are grown in the Red River Valley area, which includes parts of North and South Dakota as well as portions of Canada.
So how do two men get 10,000 pounds of potatoes bagged, shipped and sent off to stores and distribution centers? The same way William did it get the family men involved.
Dave and his wife, Marcene, have four boys of their own Paul, 22, Grant, 19, John, 17, and Jack who is nine. Season after season the family gathers together to harvest, clean, check, and bag their produce. Sonnek says potato farming is much more labor intensive than other crops in the area.
The potatoes are taken from the ground, sorted, bagged, washed and tagged. Each variety of potato must be sorted into their own pile and bagged correctly.
Each bag is labeled with a Minnesota blue tag from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture which shows the variety, crop year, and grower.
It may seem like a lot of work for six men, but Sonnek says there has been more than one occasion that his sons bring home friends, even roommates in their oldest son Paul’s case, to help with harvest.
Sonnek says during the harvesting season, their barn will be chock-full of potatoes.
“Packed to the brim, up to the ceiling,” says Sonnek.
He says he sells a good portion of his washed eating potatoes from his farm near Easton from September to May.
So what are the chances of a resident of Faribault County eating a potato produced by the Sonnek farm?
“If there’s a blue tag on the bag, chances are it is from our farm. Just look for the name on the tag. That’s the other benefit of having your own potato farm,” smiles Sonnek. “I haven’t had to purchase a potato in over 30 years.” And, Sonnek hopes he does not have to for a long time to come. He hopes to hand off the farm to one of his sons once they’re ready to return to the farm.
And what is Dave Sonnek’s favorite way to eat a potato? Smashed? Mashed? In a stew?
“I’ll take them any way they’re put in front of me,” says Sonnek.