Alsum Farms & Produce, Inc.
By Sara Serfaty
July 5, 2020
“Growing up on a farm, I liked the farm lifestyle, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a dairy farmer,” Larry Alsum of Alsum Farms & Produce, Inc., told me over the phone from his office, having spent the previous day out in the fields. Larry works alongside several family members, including his two daughters and 200 full-time employees, at his 2,700-acre farm that grows over 100 million pounds of potatoes annually. Larry and his team help out in all facets of the business: from the farming operation to packing, marketing, and transporting potatoes. The family-owned-and-operated agribusiness is located just two miles away from his childhood home.
In late-June, Alsum Farms & Produce partnered with The Farmlink Project to transport 120,000 pounds of potatoes to distribution locations in Illinois, Indiana, and Missouri.
Larry worked in accounting for six years before taking over Alsum Farms & Produce. His cousin and best friend, Glen Alsum, had founded the entity in 1973. Larry partnered with Glen’s widow to run and grow the company, soon becoming the company’s full owner. He now acts as President and CEO of the produce, farm, and transport entities of the company, growing Alsum Farms & Produce from a small packing and distribution plant of outside produce to a plant in which 60 percent of the potatoes marketed are harvested in-house and that has its own fleet of trucks.
“When I first got here, I just knew what a potato was—not the difference between a russet, red or yellow potato,” Larry said. In 1989, looking to expand the company, Larry entered a joint venture with another farmer with little potato experience, a three-year project that was only successful for its first two. Nonetheless, Larry continued farming. “I just love...working in nature and being able to work with people — in farming, you get to do both,” he said. “You couldn’t have it much better from my perspective in what you do.”
Alsum Farms now grows between 20 and 30 varieties of potatoes annually, producing 120 million pounds in an average year. This year, Larry projects to harvest over 130 million lbs of potatoes. Depending on the type, potatoes can store for up to ten months. “One of the beauties of the potato crop is that there’s very little waste,” Larry said, which is why Alsum Farms & Produce seeks to partner with food banks and other distribution entities when possible. June’s shipments to The Farmlink Project partners were mainly potatoes harvested last year from storage.
Despite its benefits, farming entails a myriad of challenges and uncertainty relating to both the market and the produce itself. In the 1990s, during his original joint venture into potato farming, he and other farms in the potato industry overproduced potatoes despite reduced demand. Alsum Farms, Inc. and other farms in the industry have thus utilized resources from The United Potato Growers of America and smaller state-level organizations, like the United Potato Growers of Wisconsin, to analyze production data and help farmers match their production levels to production demand.
Weather patterns and their unpredictability further complicate farming cycles. For example, in Wisconsin, the fall season in both 2018 and 2019 had more rain than usual, and winter’s cold weather arrived early. Uncertainty regarding weather, Larry said, is the age-old variable farmers have always grappled with — “For farmers, we just live in a world where you have to have a very high risk-tolerance because of the lack of certainty” in a variety of areas, he said.
This acceptance of the risk in agriculture shapes Larry’s calm coping with the coronavirus crisis. He prioritized keeping his employees safe by implementing social distancing protocols throughout the farm and its various operations, making wearing face masks voluntary, and providing personal protective equipment (PPE) in scenarios when social distancing is not possible. The market, he noted, has also adjusted to meet current demands, with a short burst of “super demand “ in March and April, followed by a decrease in pricing when restaurants stopped ordering potatoes. Now, he notes, demand is leveling out.
At 67, Larry is preparing to transfer management of Alsum Farms and Produce, Inc., to his two daughters, whom he is currently mentoring regarding tactical approaches for business. “The trends in business in life have been to either have to grow or get to run over and get pushed out — it’s difficult to level off and stay the same,” Larry said, but Alsum Companies strives to have “steady growth, not rapid growth.” Larry seeks opportunities to improve, which he finds has naturally attracted new suppliers and employees, ultimately growing the business. He hopes that his daughters will continue growing Alsum Farms & Produce with this business model.
“I’m still positive about agriculture,” Larry said. “I see challenges but lots of opportunities. People continue to eat, and they want to eat a healthy, balanced diet — and agriculture does that.”