Dick Okray thinks of potatoes like people: There's only one species, and each variety deserves the same respect.
Okray is co-owner and president of Okray Family Farms, a Plover-based operation where the slogan is "Potatoes, potatoes & more potatoes." The business was founded in the early 1900s as a small trading business before it became a produce company in 1918.
Today the farm encompasses more than 7,700 acres of fields, with 1,700 acres devoted to potatoes. It grows potatoes on any particular plot only once every four years, rotating its focus among the tubers and other crops like green beans, sweet corn and peas. With no fat, no cholesterol plus 5 grams each of protein and fiber in a large baked potato, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, Okray describes the spud as the ultimate health food.
The team at Okray consists of 48 full-time employees, 16 of whom work in the fields. Although most employees learn on the job, Okray said his farmers are as professional and specialized as doctors.
"They know the fields, they know the equipment," he said. "These guys have got training and a knowledge base that I will put against anyone in the industry. It makes them as intelligent and as good at what they do as anybody."
The need to learn on the job comes, in part, from ever-evolving technology and its impact on the industry. Although jobs in agriculture are expected to grow 4 percent in Wisconsin between 2012 and 2022, according to state data, those jobs aren't necessarily in the field.
The state anticipates the creation of about 40 more jobs for agricultural and food science technicians in that time frame, plus an additional 12 jobs for agricultural inspectors and about 60 more jobs for farm hands. Particularly for the farmers, no formal education is required to succeed in the field, state records show — a sentiment Okray echoed.
"I love smart people," Okray said. "But I've never believed that a degree equals smart people."
Good farm help can be hard to find, Okray said, and the operation tries to find technological ways to fill the gaps. Improvements in technology allow farmers to do their jobs more efficiently and more precisely, he said, saving time and water out in the field, plus streamlining distribution.
Plover-based Okray Family farms grows potatoes and distributes them around the country for grocery stores. Sari Lesk/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
Sorting, bagging and shipping potatoes was once a hands-on, laborious process, Okray said. People no longer have to fill bags of potatoes headed to a grocery store by hand, weighing each to ensure it meets the grocers' specifications. A machine now takes care of that — after it processes loads of 20,000 potatoes through a conveyor-belt style system of cleaning and separating by size. People control the machines and remove the potatoes that aren't good enough to sell. A machine mostly takes care of the rest.
The same applies to the fields, Okray said, where farmers previously had to hike around to choose samples for analysis to determine if a plant was in stress, a process subject to human error. Drones can do that now, and they do it more accurately, he said. That means the farm produces more per acre and saves on production costs.
"Hopefully, at the end of the day, it's going to be lower prices for people for their food," Okray said.