More than 125 employees working in various facets at Alsum Farms and Produce gathered at their Arena farm in late August for Farm Field Days, a celebration of the business’s 45 years. All of the employees also saw firsthand how potatoes are harvested from the fields at the company’s farm, something the Alsum family said was the highlight of the day.
Alsum Farms and Produce was started as a one-person operation in 1973 by Glen Alsum. Glen began the company by purchasing 50- and 100-pound bags of Wisconsin potatoes and onions, repackaging them into smaller 5-, 10- and 15-pound bags, and selling them to local growers.
And he did it all from a tiny shed.
“Glen was an ambitious man,” said Larry Alsum, president and CEO of Alsum Farms and Produce. “His small shed soon became a 4,000-square-foot warehouse filled with Wisconsin potatoes and onions.”
Larry, Glen’s cousin, became the general manager and owner of the company in 1981, after Glen passed away. Larry had experience, growing up on a family-owned dairy farm and an educational background in accounting, and started finding ways to grow the business.
He is now in his 37th year as president and CEO, working alongside several family members. His two daughters, Heidi Alsum-Randall and Wendy Alsum-Dykstra, both serve as chief operating officers — one in sales and the other in finance. The family also has a team of dedicated employees who help them reach success in the company.
What started from humble beginnings has now grown to encompass 2,400 acres of russet, red, golden and fingerling potatoes. The company itself has also grown into an integrated group of companies involved in the entire process — from production to packaging to marketing to wholesale distribution of not only potatoes and onions, but also fresh fruits and other vegetables.
But it all began with Wisconsin potatoes and onions.
“These crops work well together and Wisconsin’s fertile soil lends itself as an ideal place to grow eco-friendly potatoes and onions,” Larry said.
In fact, the sandy soil topography and seasonal climate at the company’s farm in Arena is perfect for growing potatoes in the lower Wisconsin River Valley.
Alsum Farms and Produce has two farming locations in Wisconsin, along with a nationwide grower network of farm partners that ensure a year-round supply of potatoes. While the Arena farm has been in operation since 1989, a newer location in the Grand Marsh area has promising opportunity.
“We have worked with several growers for over 30 years in the Grand Marsh area,” Larry said. “In the past year, we have purchased the equipment from one of those growers and we are continuing to work with them to rent land, storage buildings and a shop area.”
“We do plan to grow that part of our operation in the years ahead,” he said.
Farm sustainability and conservation have always been at the forefront at Alsum Farms and Produce. The company is continually improving how they care for the soil, investing in minimal tillage practices; the use of cover crops; water conservation practices that reduce usage, including irrigating potatoes only when necessary to conserve water; and using good judgement when it comes to crop protection products on farm fields.
Because the company stresses being a good steward of the land, it has been a part of the Wisconsin Healthy Grown Potato Program since its inception in 1996. The company chooses to highlight the Healthy Grown Program to continue to raise awareness about their commitment to sustainable farming.
“There is a strong desire by the consumer to know who grows the food they eat, and we have integrated this strategy into our brand,” said Christine Lindner, national sales and marketing. “The Healthy Grown Program brings awareness to what we as potato farmers do every day to be stewards of the land.”
The company also focuses on creating strong relationships with their retail and food-service customers, all of which are east of the Mississippi River. Their brand potatoes can be found in grocery stores throughout Wisconsin and the Midwest — and are available at all times of the year.
“Shoppers recognize Wisconsin locally grown potatoes at retail and it is a benefit that supports local farmers, communities and economies,” Lindner said. “We continue to expand our locally grown offerings from Wisconsin potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, celery, asparagus and other in-season produce grown in our state.”
Keeping up with consumer trends, Alsum Farms and Produce has also begun to introduce value-added potato products to provide the consumer with ready-to-serve potato products. In a world where consumers want fresh foods fast, the Alsums predict this value-added category will continue to experience growth in the future.
“Consumers are looking for convenience and new ideas on how they can prepare potatoes and other produce items that they love,” Lindner said. “In addition, consumers are looking for ways to eat healthier, and potatoes and other produce items fit this need.”
Consumer trends aren’t the only thing that has changed over the last 45 years in business. The farm has grown over the decades in number of potato acres, the number of employees, planting and harvesting equipment, added potato storage facilities and the already noted expansion of an additional farming location in Wisconsin.
Technology also continues to affect the business — from GPS systems for all the tractors to remote sensing for soil moisture to automated controls for the irrigation systems to digital scouting records for the company’s crop scouts and many other technological updates.
But even with technology improving operations in many areas of the business, Alsum Farms and Produce has always continued to look at ways to grow its potatoes in an eco-friendly manner.
“Our relationship with UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and UW-Extension has been a strength for our company and our industry,” Larry said. “Every year, Wisconsin and many of the potato growers conduct on-farm research and trials in collaboration with the UW that have allowed the Wisconsin potato industry to be a leader in the nation.”
With the potato industry seeing per capita consumption level off, Alsum Farms and Produce has continued to thrive. And it likely goes without saying that founder Glen Alsum would be proud of what the company has become today. Alsum Farms and Produce remains headquartered mere feet away from his original packing shed, and has grown into a national distributor of Wisconsin potatoes and onions, and a regional distributor of more than 300 kinds of fresh fruit and vegetables.
“The business has far surpassed expectations,” Larry said. “We have been fortunate to look ahead and see opportunity for the packaging and marketing of potatoes, as well as to promote locally grown produce.”