CRYSTAL, N.D. – On a hazy, cool mid-September morning, Samantha and Thomas Shephard stand side by side, their gloved hands pitching dirt clumps out of the potato-covered conveyor belt that is moving their crop from a truck into a Crystal Chippers warehouse.
At 10:30 a.m., the husband and wife team already have been on the job for four hours and still have another eight or nine to go. But they don't complain about the tedious work involved in getting their perishable crop into the warehouse in the best possible condition.
The couple’s outdoor “office," bordered on three sides by farm fields, is an ideal place to work, they say, and the two talk and laugh as they pick dirt clumps, pieces of vine and an occasional sun-scalded potato from the conveyor.
Samantha and Thomas have been married nine months. The former city girl who grew up in the southwestern Minnesota city of Fairmont and later lived in Minneapolis has immersed herself in learning about North Dakota farming. She asks her husband questions, watches how he does farm chores and is game for helping out with mundane tasks like being a potato "picker," the person who tosses dirt chunks and other foreign debris out of the conveyor belt.
“Going to work with my husband is the best thing,” Samantha Shephard said. “We’re a great team.”
They both are grateful for this fall’s good harvest conditions.
The Shephards' 2019 potato harvest, like that of other North Dakota and Minnesota farmers, was thwarted by excessive rains and snow and then a freeze.
In contrast, this year the Shephards already were half finished with their harvest, on Tuesday, Sept. 15.
“We’re usually just getting rolling, mid-September, and we’re already at the halfway point,” Thomas Shephard said. He expects to be finished with harvest, weather permitting, by early October. In 2019, the Crystal couple and many other Northern Plains potato farmers never finished harvesting. Instead, a freeze that destroyed the potatoes brought it to an end, forcing farmers to abandon their potato acreage.
“We left plenty,” Thomas said.
The disastrous potato year of 2019, however, didn’t dissuade the Shephards from planting a crop in 2020.
“You can’t get down on one year because there’s always a fresh start in the spring,” Thomas Shephard said.
Shephards have been growing and selling potatoes since 1930, when Thomas’ great-grandfather, Herbert, founded Crystal Chippers in the small town of Crystal, about 70 miles northwest of Grand Forks.
Thomas grew up working with his grandfather, Robert Shephard, and father, Lyle Shephard, on the farm. After graduating from Valley Edinburg (N.D.) High School in 2011, Shephard went to University of Northwestern in St. Paul, where he earned business and Biblical studies degrees.
During the four years away from the farm, Shephard learned it is where he wanted to be.
“It turned an obligation into an opportunity,” he said. “Getting out made me realize it was pretty special what I had back home.” What was special included a family farm that, besides potatoes, raises soybeans, corn and wheat.
Crystal Chippers grows chipping potatoes and red varieties that are used for processing, selling them to buyers across the United States.
Since Shephard returned to the farm, he’s been preparing to someday take it over, soaking up knowledge from his father and Jeremy Kartes, who heads the harvest field crew. Kartes has worked for Crystal Chippers since Shephard was a baby.
“He’s like an older brother to me. He knows what he’s doing, which is a lot of peace for us and for me,” Shephard said. "Everybody here is like family."
Though the worldwide pandemic has made 2020 a difficult year in many ways, this year’s potato crop is a bright spot for the Shephards. The potatoes went into the ground without a hitch this spring, weather conditions during the growing season were favorable, and so, far, harvest conditions have been ideal, Thomas said. Meanwhile, the forecast bodes well for continued favorable harvest weather.
“We don’t feel like we’re on borrowed time. Last year, you never knew what could be your last day,” he said.
Besides good harvest conditions, the Shephards have a seasoned work crew whose members know their jobs.
“It’s like we prepared all year for a game and now, we’re in a game,” he said.
He will readily admit he’s still learning some of the plays.
“The one thing I’ve learned about potato farming is there’s a lot to learn,” Shepherd said. He embraces the challenge because he wants to learn everything about the career he loves.
“It’s more than just an occupation," he said. "It’s a lifestyle."