In 1982, two young seniors at Montana State University started dating. They had known of each other growing up in the Mission Valley, she in Bigfork and he on the family farm outside of Pablo, but it wasn’t until college that they officially met. The next year, Roger and Kathy Starkel would get married and begin their life and business together.
“It’s been nothing but fun since,” Roger said.
Nearly 40 years later, the Starkels are about to be the recipients of the Ronan Area Chamber of Commerce’s ‘Producer of the Year’ award. While he still says the award is for “old guys,” Roger said he and Kathy are honored for the recognition.
Yet, this achievement pales in comparison to the innovations and advancements Roger and Kathy have brought to the agriculture industry.
Roger worked in the potato lab while in college where one of the technicians took Roger under his wing. Roger said it was during this time that his interest in potato farming was piqued. Raised on a farm that grew potatoes, Roger said he never thought much of spuds before his time in the lab. Roger recalled propagating up to 1,000 plants on shelves in his dorm room.
From start to finish, the generation process takes four years. All the while, you are hoping that crop succeeds, Kathy said. There are many issues with spuds that get in your way, like early frosts. Just ask the Starkels.
When he and Kathy returned to the Mission Valley, they returned to the farm. They partnered with Roger’s brother, Ed, and Ed’s wife, Lynn, for the first 14 years of their careers as agriculture producers, splitting the harvest and the hours upon hours of work.
They were farming 80 acres their first year, when a frost came in mid-September and temperatures dropped into the teens. They could only salvage 10 of the 80 acres they had planted. Roger and Kathy had to take out a disaster loan that would end up taking them 10 years to pay off.
“It’s kind of frightening to be honest with you,” Kathy said.
Now, business is better than good. It’s booming. In the span of three months, Roger and Kathy will take one plant and make up to 100,000 plants from it — and they do this with 10 varieties of potatoes and five varieties of mint. The methods the Starkels created three decades ago have now become standards in the industry. The Starkels’ on-farm lab was the first of its kind in the nation, and possibly the entire world, Kathy said. Throughout the years, Roger has given dozens of tours to international farmers.
“I don’t tell them all the tricks but the gist of what we do,” Roger said, smiling.
It started out in a spare bedroom of the couple’s home, but once they started having children, the lab moved to a building about 100 feet from their front door. Using tissue culture and heat growth chambers, and closely guarded secret techniques, the Starkels have been able to very nearly rid their potato varieties of viruses.
The Starkels were the first in the nation to get mint plants to grow from a tissue culture. Through the same methods they have used with propagating their spuds, they have been able to come in as a clean-up crew in the mint industry.
Each seed is propagated in sterile conditions under a hood that blows filtered air out over the samples to blow away any airborne bacteria. After the beginning stages, the young plants are planted in sterile soil in the summer. Those tubers are harvested as what Roger and Kathy call the “nuclear seed.” Then those seeds are hand cut and planted in groups of eight, with a two-foot space in between each group. Next a leaf is taken from every single plant and tested for the three major viruses that affect potato crops — PVY, PVA and PVX. If a virus is present, the whole group of eight will be pulled and thrown away.
Roger said the seed potato growers in Montana spend ample amounts of money to keep their strains clean. One little mistake can ruin upwards of 30,000 plants. It wasn’t long before Roger and Kathy realized there were tasks they just couldn’t let someone else do. Kathy would supervise the three six-hour shifts in the lab, a place that became daycare for the couple’s younger daughters.
“If you’re not real careful, you can lose everything,” she said.
Kathy said one misconception of what they do is that people think they are genetically altering the potatoes, which is not true. She said they have no way to do any sort of gene splicing in their facility. What they do is raise the seed, creating a clean stock for commercial potato growers out-of-state to plant for production.
The extensive testing process is one of the reasons Montana’s seed is so respected, Roger said, and why it is one of the more expensive seeds on the market. He said they are trying to get the most money they can for the best quality product. So far, this approach has worked — buyers come back year after year. Everything hangs on having a trusted, reliable product.
“It only takes one year to ruin a reputation,” Kathy said.
Roger and Kathy are focusing on the tasks at hand for now, but said they are always on the lookout for other crops they can work with. For now, the future of the farm seems certain, with both Roger and Kathy still very active and healthy. But like all rural communities, the fate rests upon the younger generations to carry on in the agriculture business.
The Starkels’ older daughters both have their undergraduate degrees from Arizona State University and have both sought graduate degrees. Their youngest daughter is 17-year-old Kendra Starkel, a junior at Ronan High School. Roger and Kathy said they are encouraging their children to go out and experience other things before they choose to come back to the family farm, a decision that remains wholly their own.
During the few hours each day that Roger and Kathy have, they both give back to their industry and their community. Roger serves on upwards of three advisory boards for the potato industry and Kathy volunteered one day a week at the Ronan School District for 22 years. She still serves on multiple boards and left the interview early to decorate and set up for the end-of-the-season basketball banquet.
While one evening of this year will be to honor them, the Starkels honor the Mission Valley every day through their drive, determination and through what they give back to Lake County.
Read all of Jessica's writing on Muck Rack