Apr 7, 2007
Okray Farms Enters 101st Year

The governing philosophy at Okray Farms is slow, steady growth. And that’s exactly what they’ve done over the last 100 years. What started as a small operation buying and selling produce in 1905 has grown to a family farm with more than 7,000 acres under cultivation. One of the main crops for the family is fresh-market potatoes. They also grow sweet corn, green beans, soybeans and field corn.

Dick Okray, secretary/treasurer for the company, said their main potato varieties are russets, reds, yellow-fleshed varieties, Superiors and white varieties.

“Last year we experimented with some other varieties, one of them being German Butterball,” Okray said. “The sheds were very accepting. It’s one we’d consider doing again.”

Though they stress that they aren’t big risk takers, Mike Finnessy, Dick and Jim Okray said they do try new things, and new varieties, as the market demands it.

“It’s all a combination of what grows well in our climate, our soil conditions and what the consumer wants,” said Jim, who is farm manager. “We do try to find ones that have varying maturity dates so they’re not all ready for harvest at the same time.”

Because a lot of their potatoes go into storage, Okray Farms wants a potato that stores well on a long-term basis.

“It also has to look good because the consumer wants a nice-looking potato,” Jim said.

Okray Farms’ direct customer is the retail buyer and not the end consumer. So, the team has to keep in touch with retailers to make sure they’re giving retailers what they want. For instance, Kentucky and Tennessee used to be solid markets for red potatoes. But lately those markets have been leaning toward Russets.

Variety choices aren’t the only thing changing, Dick said. The pack size continues to get smaller every year. Though they still pack some 15s and 20s, a majority of the company’s business is in 5s, 8s and 10s.

“When we’re talking about quality, we’re talking about size,” Finnessy said. Finnessy is the vice president of the company.

“When they shift the pack size, it’s also shifting to a larger potato in a smaller bag,” Dick said.

So what’s new this year?

Jim said they’re going to try some new russet varieties that are longer maturing and store better.

“What we like to do every year is try new varieties on a limited basis, five to 10 acres,” Jim said. “If we like that, then we start to expand on it.”

The farm also is looking to add value for consumers. Dick said they’ve talked to some companies that make spice packets to possibly offer spices in the bags of potatoes.

“It’s the idea of trying to give people an entire meal instead of a bag of potatoes,” he said. “Those ideas are really going to start coming along.”

An Interesting Business

The team at Okray Farms doesn’t have to do anything to keep their jobs exciting – the nature of the business does it for them.

“This industry changes so fast, it’s interesting all the time,” Mike said. “You don’t get bored.”

“It’s a very active and very interestingly consolidating industry – all the time,” Dick added.

One of the better parts of working in an industry, like the potato industry, that is constantly changing is having the support of the people who work with you, Dick said. And for Okray Farms, that team is family.

“There are interesting challenges that come along every week,” he said. “And when push comes to shove, it’s pretty darn nice to have a family there alongside you.

“When you talk about corporate America, when they get their backs pinned against the wall, employees have to stand behind the guy in charge. When that happens with family, you all stand shoulder to shoulder.”

Okray Farms’ team is made up of many members. Joe Okray Jr. is president of the company. Others on the team are Chris Okray, Joe Okray III, Al Peskie and Carol Okray, as well as numerous others who have helped Okray Farms in the last 100 years – and into the next 100.

But will the family tradition started 100 years ago continue? It’s probably too early to tell. The next generation is fairly young, ranging from 6 to the mid-20s.

“In the last 15 years, the nonprofitability of those years has a way of making you think if you want to make sure your kid’s trained to drive a tractor. Or, would you rather they train to be an accountant,” Dick said. “In the industry’s security, it’s better to be an attorney or an accountant.”

But, Jim said, farming’s an interesting business where even attorneys and accountants can find a job on the farm.

“We’re open to giving all of our children an opportunity if they want that; there won’t be any pressure on them,” he said.

Before any of the next generation comes on board, they’ll have to weigh the benefits and challenges of being in the potato business. Besides the lack of profitability, there are other challenges facing growers.

Jim said he sees the biggest challenges coming from input costs. With fuel and fertilizer prices continuing to rise, growers are spending more money than ever before.

“And there’s always the fear of insecticides and herbicides becoming less effective,” he said. “We’re always on the lookout for products we can use.”

Dick and Mike also cited rising energy costs as a big concern.

“Energy conservation will be an important issue with this company,” Mike said. “I don’t know how we’re going to address it just yet. But with energy costs going the way they’re going, it’ll be a real issue.”

One way to try to keep those costs down would be to look at alternative fuels, which is something Dick said they are considering.

“The short of it is that we’re really trying to stay viable,” Dick said. “There’s a lot of different areas that will really need attention: energy, varieties and making sure we’re staying germane to the marketplace.”

The Joys of Farming

“I just love the people. From getting to know our employees to our vendors to our customers. Literally, there is none (industry) better.” -Dick Okray

“There is a definite beginning and end every year. You have a cycle every year that keeps you refreshed and rejuvenated and interested in what you do.” -Jim Okray

“You take sunshine and some water and some seed and a little bit of fertilizer and make a good, healthy food for the population of this country and others. It’s a rewarding thing that you can take these intangibles and put them together and make something good for everyone.” -Mike Finnessy

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