Columbus Farm in the News

COLUMBUS — A popular snack that can be bought in virtually any grocery store has roots in the Columbus area.

Millions of pounds of white chipping potatoes for Frito-Lay are produced annually at CSS Farms.

Located north of Duncan for the past 22 years, the business grows potatoes on about 1,325 acres of land. The fields are located within a 15-mile radius of the plant.

“Frito-Lay is our primary customer out of our Columbus farm location, but we grow them and ship potatoes straight off the field,” said Tyler Backemeyer, farm manager. “More than half of them come out of storage, so we actually store roughly 40 million pounds of potatoes and ship another 30 million off the field.”

The spuds are sent to various locations.

“It depends on Frito-Lay’s national inventory and customer demand,” said Backemeyer, who has been farm manager for four years.

The Columbus location and another site in Minden supply the main Frito-Lay plant in Topeka, Kansas, with potatoes for 10 months out of the year. Potatoes are also shipped to Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee and Colorado.

Nearly 20 full-time employees work for CSS Farms locally. The work force shoots up to about 50 during harvest time, which runs from August to mid-October. The business also employs five temporary agriculture workers from South Africa through the H-2A visa program.

CSS Farms has 15 locations across the country that produce seed potatoes, organic vegetables and other crops, including the chipping potatoes grown here. The business started in South Dakota and expanded to Nebraska in 1993 to grow potatoes for the Frito-Lay chip plant in Topeka.

Backemeyer said Nebraska is a good place to grow potatoes and its proximity to the Kansas plant cuts down on trucking costs.

Potato planting begins in mid-April and finishes the first week in May. Bins are used to warm seeds and allow them to sprout before planting.

The plant consists of a shipping area, storage bins, sorting area and space to store equipment.

Five full-time employees work in the shop area. They operate tractors during harvest and do maintenance work in the offseason.

Potatoes are kept in storage bins that can hold millions of pounds. The product is stacked 18 feet high in a covered, temperature-controlled area.

“The storage bins are able to store potatoes within a tenth of a degree,” Backemeyer said. The desired temperature depends on the variety of potato, but a lower temperature limits the chance of disease or rot.

Conditions inside the bins can be monitored remotely using cellphones and iPads.

Potatoes are graded by four to five employees who work during the harvest season. They scan the potatoes as they move along a conveyor belt and remove the ones that are green or damaged. Potatoes that don’t make the cut go to a local feedlot.

“Every potato that we have at the farm or in the field comes across this line,” Backemeyer said.

The product is shipped in refrigerated semitrailers. The plant can send 10 to 30 semi-loads of potatoes down the road each day from August through May, Backemeyer said.

An onsite lab is used to produce test chips from the stored potatoes. Backemeyer said Frito-Lay requires the sampling to monitor the crop. CSS Farms is paid based on the quality of potato it provides.

“If they start frying orange instead of white, that’s not good. We get paid by Frito-Lay based on the actual quality of the potato. There is a base price. If the quality is really good, we get an incentive. If the quality is worse, we get paid less,” he said.

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