One might think that growing seeds for tubers amounts to small potatoes, but that’s the farthest thing from the case at Sklarczyk Seed Farm in Johannesburg, east of Gaylord.
The operation brings in between $2.5 million and $5 million annually selling grape-sized seed stock for more than 125 different varieties of potatoes to customers all over the world.
The farm was founded in 1942 and sold its full-grown product at Eastern Market in Detroit. Over the years it transitioned to selling potato seeds and now sells 6.5 million seeds per year, 40 percent of which are exported to Canada, the Middle East, South America, Chile, and Asia.
One might visualize potato farming as a dirty job worthy of a Mike Rowe TV episode. But the Sklarczyk Seed Farm grows its seeds using hydroponics, which is a method of growing plants sans soil.
“It’s just water, and the plants sit on a tray that has a 5 percent slope to it,” explains Ben Sklarczyk, the third generation of his family to run the farm. “There’s a capillary mat, like a thin blanket the plants sit on, that helps spread the water across the tray. This allows them to have both wet and dry periods. Otherwise, the potato would stay submerged in water and would break down and not be usable.”
The potato seeds are created using a technique called isolated tissue culture. Sklarczyk’s wife, Alison, and her five-person team cut plants into sections at the growing point, just below the leaves, and put the sections into a growing medium that looks like clear gelatin. In four weeks, an identical plant is produced.
“It keeps the plants clean and healthy,” Sklarczyk says. “Everything we produce and grow is free from all potato pathogens. The industry has very strict standards for clean seeds.”
Sklarczyk Seed Farm customers then plant the seeds (as many as 20,000 per acre at 50 cents per seed) and begin a four-year process to produce potatoes, potato chips, and French fries. Potato farmers plant, harvest, and store, replant, harvest, and store their crops four times before they’re large enough to sell.
“For every 25 potatoes that leave our operation, four years down the road, 50,000 pounds — or a semi-trailer full — of raw product ends up at Better Made to be made into chips,” Sklarczyk says. “It starts with good, clean material that we supply our customers with and that, in turn, helps drive the yield and quality for the customers for years to come.”