Valley Tissue Culture produces elite seed potatoes using 'in vitro' technology
A Halstad, Minnesota, family has created a business of producing early-generation potato seed for potato seed producers. The business is a two-generation effort, with numerous employees here on H-2A visas.
HALSTAD, Minn. — Valley Tissue Culture, Inc. is a Red River Valley business that has grown from an experimental concept in the 1980s into a multi-generational potato seed company today.
Today, Sandi Aarestad, 65, runs the business with a daughter, Alexandra “Alex” Bare, 35, and a son, Charles “Charlie,” 34. They grow and sell low-generation seed potatoes for farmers who produce seed potatoes sold to commercial growers. Other key people are Sandi’s husband and co-founder, Randy, as well as Alex’s husband, Michael Bare.
The Aarestad family and their crew raise seed potatoes started in test tubes in the lab, and then grow them out in greenhouses. Valley Tissues sells to 40 customers — primarily in North Dakota and Minnesota, but also in Canada, and as far as the states of Washington and Idaho.
Harvest typically runs from mid-August to mid-October. Two-thirds of the harvest is inside the greenhouse. Outside harvest is done only after the vines are dead, and the seed is no longer vulnerable to insects or pathogens.
Sandra “Sandi” Charles acknowledges she did not plan a career farming, especially in a sophisticated corner of agriculture. She grew up on a farm near Hancock, Minnesota. Her family raised pigs, corn, soybeans and some wheat. The girls helped with rock picking, but mostly brought lunch.
Sandi went on to study home economics at North Dakota State University, where she met her future husband, Randy Aarestad, a farmer from Hallock, Minnesota.
Randy and his brother, Larry, then ran Aarestad Farm Products. The company produced a half-dozen certified seed potato varieties and washed potatoes from other producers from November to February. Since 1949, the Aarestads also ran Red River State Bank at Halstad.
Initially, Sandi busied herself roguing fields and driving truck and combine. The Aarestad brothers specialized in iconic Red River Valley red varieties. They bought “foundation” seed but a bacterial ring rot infestation in the 1980s was devastating, economically. Their entire production had to be thrown out.
About that time, Florian Lauer, a University of Minnesota potato breeder, started promoting “in vitro” tissue culture seed production. With the new test tube method, Lauer would propagate from a plantlet (cutting) — the meristem — or sprout. He’d clean the sprouts with sterile water, a diluted bleach and sterile rinse, and then grow them in a “media” — a gelatinous mix with vitamins and nutrients.
Sandi remembers Randy traveling to one of Lauer’s demonstrations at Williams, Minnesota, near Lake of the Woods County, and coming home with the exclamation:
“This is the future!”
In 1984, the Aarestads started with four test tubes in a small greenhouse. By 1985 they’d set up a second small greenhouse. While Randy focused on the fields, Sandi, with a toddler and pregnant, did lab and greenhouse work, helped by ladies in town. They continued to expand, building new greenhouses in 1987, 1988 and 1989.
In the early 1990s, Randy and Larry split their farming enterprise. Randy primarily focused on the family’s other business interests.
Sandi ran Valley Tissue Culture day-to-day as tissue culture seed took over the industry. Seed growers paid more for seed than under the old system, yes, but their seed yields doubled. The Aarestads became known for diversity — producing seed for russets, chip potatoes and table stock varieties.
In the mid-1990s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture deregulated (legalized for commercial sale) varieties that Monsanto had genetically engineered to resist Colorado potato beetles. Valley Tissue was the first private tissue culture company to do work for the ag-bio giant.
In 2010 they built four more greenhouses for the total of 13 they still have today.
Seed potatoes in the greenhouses grow in rectangular trays of about 2-by-4-feet, in virgin peat mixture, watered with “drip tape” irrigation fed by well water. Alex checks growing spuds at least twice a day in person and ensures they have enough water or nutrition.
Every three to five years, Valley Tissue Culture must “re-skin” the greenhouses, replacing the double-layer of plastic. Greenhouses prevent any intrusion from disease when potatoes are growing to create mini-tubers.
“We try to keep everything neat around here — nothing out — because that gets picked up in the wind,” Sandi said.
Some varieties aren’t placed near each other. Many red breeds grow 60 to 80 days, while a brown-skinned frying potato might be 100 to 140 days. The plants die down naturally at the end of their life.
The Valley Tissue greenhouse employs a kind of air conditioning they call a “cool cell” — essentially a long PVC pipe with holes in it. The “cell” is corrugated, durable cardboard. Water trickles down through the kind of corrugated, durable cardboard. Fans on the other east side of the greenhouse, draws cool air through the cool cell, normally keeping the greenhouse in the mid-70s
Close, yet far
The Aarestad family includes three daughters and a son, born in four succeeding years. The eldest is Cristina, born in 1985; Danielle, 1986; Alexandra, 1987, and Charles, 1988. Sandi strove to get all four out in the greenhouse to work in the summers. Alex worked in Valley Tissue in high school and college.
All four graduated from Oak Grove Lutheran School in Fargo, North Dakota. All took education and careers, but eventually returned to live and raise children within five miles of home, all with careers nearby, relating to family businesses and agriculture. There are 13 grandchildren, and another on the way.
It turned out, Alex was a natural fit at Valley Tissue.
She graduated high school in 2006. She went on for a biology degree at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minnesota. She briefly pondered a career in health care. In 2010, while considering graduate school options, she came home to help Sandi. Three years later, she knew she’d stay. In 2014, she married Michael Bare, who she’d met earlier through track and field.
At Valley Tissue, Alex and her mother grappled with finding workers who could handle the long hours, and keep all the “detail work” straight. Eventually they started using the federal H2A temporary visa program to bring in employees from South America. Valley Tissue started with two, then four and now hire seven a year.
Alex does all the hiring. She works with a Tulsa, Oklahoma, agent and two agents in South Africa. Alex views a video that comes with each candidate. She spends time online, talking with each potential candidate, learning about their previous work experience and goals.The South Africans come in late January and stay through November 15. Most are white women in their 20s and 30s. Some have a little farm experience. Valley Tissue hires only people who speak English.
Valley Tissue pays for the worker’s visa, their air travel, housing, local work transportation, and competitive wage. (North Dakota’s “adverse effect wage rate in North Dakota is $16.47 per hour, higher than Minnesota’s $15.37 per hour, but Minnesota businesses must pay overtime.) The U.S. farm pay is about two or three times what they can make back home in a market where they say the indigenous workers often get preference.
Public and private potato breeders provide send clones of new potato varieties in a clean test tube. Valley Tissue gets “mother plants” tested ensure they don’t have any of the 16 pathogens she needs to be clear of to be certified to sell “pre-nuclear” seed to farmers.
Customers declare their needs for potato seed volume 18-months in advance. Most varieties are protected under the U.S. Plant Variety Protection Act (PVPA), which allows the developer to collect royalties. “Pre-nuclear status is the top of the elite of the elite in the ‘generation system,’” Sandi said. The goal is to eliminate viruses and viroids that mutate.
- Valley Tissue takes orders for “ seed, and pay by the pound in increments often ranging from 50 pounds to 300 pounds, which plants roughly one acre. Valley Tissue sells seed in small, medium and large seed size.
- The seed farmer plants this as “G1” (generation-one) or “Field G1.”
- Seed farmers plant G2 the next year.
- In years 4 and 5, the seed producer sells G3 and G4 to “increase growers” or commercial farmers who want lower generation seed.
- G5 potatoes go to “wash plants,” where processors mostly are concerned that
potatoes are free of bacterial issues.
Sandi has always been wary about making the business too large, concerned about keeping it under sufficient control.
As it is today, Alex said the only “down time” is in November through mid-January, which is focused on maintenance, buying supplies and organizing, and making tags for seed going out.
Sandi sees opportunities in the business, especially in organic production.
“There is no organic, high-quality seed out there, for potatoes,” Sandi observed.
Organic producers — because they’re a small industry — have ways of skirting certain U.S. Department of Agriculture laws regarding seed potatoes.
“If Randy and I were younger, we’d be farming and having an organic seed farm — commercial — for selling seed to organic producers,” Sandi said.
But at ages 65 and 68, Sandi and Randy are happy to be transitioning to the “kids,” whose plates are already full. Alex and her brother, Charlie, are becoming the new owners.
Alex is enthused about the future.
”I think people will always eat potatoes,” she said.
There are satisfactions in meeting customer needs, and personal satisfactions.
“I hope that my kids — all my kids, and especially girls — will look at me someday, and think, ‘Wow, I want to be like mom — hard-working agriculture professional who wants to get something done and make a difference.’”