It's a windy day in Umatilla County, and gusts are sending great clouds of dust sideways, obscuring even the next bend in the road.
Just outside of Hermiston, more dust flies as Tony Amstad drives his pickup along the gravel road that crosses his 3,000-acre property. The truck's license plate reads "TATERS," leaving no doubt as to what lies beneath the dusty surface of Amstad's fields.
Here, food is not just part of your life three times a day—it is life. There are nearly two million acres of irrigated land in this part of the Columbia Basin, and from it comes potatoes, wheat, watermelons, alfalfa, and many other crops. Trucks loaded with produce leave the farms in a constant stream, headed to Portland, California, and beyond. Amstad's potatoes can be purchased throughout the U.S. and as far away as Hong Kong and Russia. And some of the 52,000 tons of potatoes the Amstads grow each year are donated for food boxes at the Oregon Food Bank.
For more than 50 years, the Amstads have been farming with an eye towards improvement—not just for their business, but for the community at large. Tony started Amstad Produce in Sherwood in 1959, and when demand for his potatoes outstripped supply, he moved most of the growing operations to eastern Oregon. It's a family operation: Tony's wife DeeAnn is the business manager; sons Jeff Urbach and Skeeter Amstad, and nephew Todd Dimbat, are partners in the operation with Tony and DeeAnn.
It's not just taters growing in those fields. Collaborating with OSU researchers from the Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center (HAREC), the Amstads have opened their fields for research trials and supplied potatoes for field tests. The family tracks research through the center and both Tony and DeeAnn have served on its advisory board.
"That's where they come in handy," Tony said. "If something comes up, they're my go-to people to figure out what we growers can do about it and what not to do."
One of those go-to people is Phil Hamm, superintendent of HAREC and a plant pathologist.
Most recently, Hermiston growers struggled with silver scurf, a fungal disease that attacks potatoes. Researchers were flummoxed by the biology of the fungus, Hamm said. Was it coming from the seeds or the soil? Through tests conducted on local fields, including the Amstads', researchers discovered that the pathogen spreads through daughter tubers planted as seed, and they soon discovered ways to control the fungus and limit the impact of silver scurf.
Hamm said that kind of research is essential, and it takes patience from the landowner. Test plots require adherence to strict protocols, which means farmers have to conduct all of their normal operations—watering, fertilizing and harvesting—without disturbing the test area.
"Whenever we do research on growers' fields, we are kind of a pain in the neck," Hamm said. "Every aspect of their field can be changed if we have a research plot in the middle of their field. The Amstads and many others have allowed us to be out there because they know the importance of the research."
The Amstads aren't the only growers in the region who value OSU's research. HAREC has benefitted significantly from donations of money and equipment over the years, including funds for five pivot irrigation systems, each with a price tag of about $75,000. From a new pesticide facility to lab equipment, area growers and food producers have graciously, and continuously, supported the station, Hamm said. This year, work will start on a $55,000 addition to the potato lab; only about a quarter of the funds came from OSU, and potato groups donated the rest.
"Whenever I need something from the Amstads, or any of the potato growers here, they're very willing to collaborate," Hamm said. "The growers have made this station what they consider their station, and they have put up the dollars to say that."
Oregon State University researchers aren't the only ones who benefit from the Amstads' generosity. An untold number of Oregonians receiving food from emergency food pantries have dined on Amstad potatoes: the farm is the largest partner of Farmers Ending Hunger, a nonprofit organization that collects donations of harvests from growers and distributes the food to emergency food banks. Last year, the Amstads donated 660,000 pounds of potatoes to the agency.
Tony and DeeAnn shrug off the praise. "You want to help your community," DeeAnn said. "When you see that Oregon has one of the highest rates of people homeless and going hungry, it's pretty sad."
Most of the Amstad potatoes start life in picturesque fields near Culver, almost smack-dab in the center of Oregon. It's there that another family member—DeeAnn's brother, Jim Carlson—runs a farming operation. Carlson attended OSU until his father announced he wanted to retire. So Carlson returned home to Culver. He now grows seed potatoes for Amstad Produce, as well as carrot seed, wheat, bluegrass, and more on about 800 acres. Producing seeds in central Oregon puts Carlson in close contact with another branch of the Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station. Carlson serves on the advisory board of the Central Oregon Agricultural Research Center near Madras, helping connect researchers with real-world issues.
Carlson and the Amstads also share a history of working the tri-state potato-breeding program. The Amstads have helped the program develop new seed, while Carlson is a member of the Potato Variety Management Institute that promotes the interests of potato growers in Oregon, Idaho, and Washington.
Clearly, contributing to the future of agriculture—through research, charity, and bloodlines—is a family tradition. But Carlson and the Amstads say it's their duty as farmers.
"Fifty years from now, agriculture will still be here," Tony said. "It better be here. It's gotta be somewhere."