Growing a potato is more like slow cooking in a Crock-Pot rather than zapping in a microwave. At least that’s how Prim Parker sees it. Potatoes need time, patience and a whole lotta love to make it from seed to sprout to a full on starchy, tuberous crop.
Prim would know. He’s been growing the edible for more than 34 years.
“My grandparents on the Parker side moved down here in the late 30s from North Carolina,” says Prim of the farm’s early beginnings. “My grandfather was coming back and forth to Florida all the time to buy produce, so he decided to come down here and grow it himself.”
Parker Produce, just off of County Road 13A on County Road 305 in Elkton and approximately a 20 minute drive from downtown St. Augustine, has been in the potato business for nearly 80 years. Today, they are one of the premier suppliers for potato chip brands Frito-Lay and Cape Cod Potato Chips, which is owned by Snyder’s-Lance.
“My grandfather got into potatoes in the late 40s or early 50s,” says Prim. “He started doing business with Herman Lay of Lay’s potato chips and everything was done on a handshake in those days.”
Like many farmers in today’s American agricultural society, Prim and his family members were born into the occupation. Prim owns 400 acres, his brother Scott another 400 acres and his uncle Fred and cousin Jeff farm together on 700 acres.
“We each farm our own farm, but we farm under Parker Produce as one entity when we harvest and for marketing,” Prim explains. “We’re able to move a lot more volume being combined as we are and it’s really worked out for us. We’re just a family that gets along and it’s really working.”
Prim feels “blessed” to have been saved a spot in the family business. Establishing a farm is expensive – very expensive. The price of farmable land has skyrocketed. Owning a fleet of tractors, like the John Deer lineup that Parker Produce has, can cost upwards of a few million dollars. Not to mention the full-time and seasonal labor, and all-around finicky character of Mother Nature’s cooperation during growing season.
“My father died in an automobile accident when I was five,” says Prim. “And then my grandfather died a few months later. “My grandmother wouldn’t let them divide the farm up until my brother and I were of age. That was a blessing for us. We each got a little bit of land to start with and we had some business that went with the land through Frito-Lay.”
Prim has been farming since his late teens. He started right after graduating from St. Joseph Academy in 1980. This means that a lot of harvests have come and gone.
“Harvest season starts late April or early May,” says Prim. “We’re a few days from harvest here and we’re fixin’ to go to seven days a week. That means that a typical day for me will include checking the water on our young crops, making sure the harvesters are out in the field doing what they need to be doing and that the graders are up and running.”
There are thousands of different varieties of potatoes, but Parker Produce’s mainstay is The Atlantic, a staple in the chip industry that was developed by agricultural research scientists in the late 1970s.
Parker Produce supplies potato chip plants in the Southeast on a 24 to 36-hour basis. They need to supply enough potatoes to meet the chip demand with Memorial Day being the biggest chip sale day of the year. Prim says that the farm ships 800 semi-trailer loads in a six-week period and an average trailer load is about 44,000 pounds.
That’s 35.2 million pounds worth of potatoes in a month-and-a-half.
“In the summer months, as soon as harvest is over, we’ll start going through all of our equipment and clean everything up and start rebuilding all of the harvest equipment and put it up, so it’s good to go for next year,” Prim says. “We’re constantly doing maintenance in the slower times, which is July through August.”
During the off season when potatoes aren’t in the fields, Prim and his family plant sorghum-sudangrass, which looks like corn, but doesn’t have an ear on it. The cover crop helps keeps the weeds down, cuts down on erosion during rainfall and acts as compost when chopped back into the soil for potato growing.
When asked what advice Prim has for young farmers, he says, “You need to have your product sold before you grow it. That to me is the biggest thing. And talk to some people already in the industry. Don’t be afraid to ask because 90 percent of the farmers I know would tell you anything and give you the shirt of their back.”
“There are not many young farmers coming up and that kind of concerns me,” Prim adds. “I’m very blessed to have a son-in-law that wants to farm and he’s got two boys and I’m just hoping that this thing will keep on going.”
3303 County Road 305, Elkton