ReGen Brands Recap #75

Ladd Wahlen @ Roots Potato Chips

Single-Origin & Regeneratively-Farmed Potato Chips

On this episode, Anthony and Kyle speak with Ladd Whalen, Co-Founder and Owner of Roots Potato Chips. Roots is supporting regenerative agriculture with its lineup of single-origin, regeneratively farmed potato chips, which come in five flavors: sea salt, purple sea salt, salt and vinegar, jalapeno and barbeque. Roots Potato Chips can be found online, and in retailers and restaurants in Idaho and the surrounding states. 


From Potato Farming To Potato Frying

Ladd is a fourth-generation potato farmer from Aberdeen, Idaho. After studying agronomy and business in college, he decided to start his own farm with his wife, Zoey.  When they acquired their own land, they knew they wanted to do things a little bit differently. Ladd wanted to test regenerative approaches to farming that he had explored in college, and the pair wanted to add more value to the farm. The idea to create a potato chip brand came when they noticed a growing local demand for artisanal products. Ladd and Zoey’s interest in producing high-quality, whole-foods, plus their love of snacking led them to realize that a locally-made, better-for-you potato chip was just the right idea. After renting a commercial kitchen and taste-testing a few recipes with their family and friends, Roots Potato Chips was born. 


Regeneration: From Research To Application

Ladd’s interest in regenerative farming stems from a research project he conducted in college on biological fumigation for potato production. Conventional potato farming uses heavy fumigation to sterilize soil in order to prevent parasitic nematodes and wireworms. Ladd researched an alternative biological method where brassicas like mustard or oilseed radish are planted as a cover crop. When these cover crops are terminated, they decompose and release natural chemical compounds that suppress the parasitic nematodes. This research caused him to become interested in all the ways in which he could work with nature to improve potato farming. 

Since acquiring his own farm, Ladd has implemented a variety of practices that showcase what regenerative potato farming looks like and how beneficial it can be to the land. He summarizes the practices he applies and how they compare to conventional:

    1. Bringing more diversity through rotations and cover crops. Conventional potato farms typically rotate potatoes and one or two other small grains (cereals). Ladd’s farm plants 12-14 different species of cover crops in addition to potatoes, creating seven times the species diversity of a conventional potato field. They are also testing companion cropping buckwheat with the potatoes.  
    2. Reducing soil disturbance. Conventional potato farming requires a lot of tillage — typically four of five passes a year of deep ripping the soil. In comparison, Ladd’s farm tills only once right before planting. Ladd’s farm also does not use any synthetic pesticides that kill microbiology in the soil.
  • Maintaining living roots and armoring the soil. Conventional potato farms have soil covered for about a third of the year while Ladd’s farm has soil coverage for 80 to 90 percent of the year. They also heavily focus on compost production, adding nutrients to further boost soil health and microbiology. 
    1. Using nature to combat pests. Ladd’s farm does not use any synthetic pesticides. In addition to planting brassicas to combat nematodes underground, they also plant pollinator strips around the field to attract beneficial insects into the farm area. 
  • Integrating animals. Ladd’s farm brings in cattle and sheep to graze on the cover crops planted between potato plantings. The animals help to naturally terminate the cover crops and work manure into the soil which provides additional nutrients. 


As a result of these practices, Ladd has seen a significant boost in above and below-ground biodiversity. His fields have three times the earthworm count as a conventional field and wildlife like deer, elk, and birds all frequent the land. He has also seen increased water-holding capacity and reduced soil erosion, which is particularly important as Aberdeen, Idaho has a very arid climate with less than 10 inches of precipitation a year. 

“Our earthworm counts are three times higher than a conventional field. We've seen increases in our fungi to bacteria ratios, which is very beneficial. And we've seen increases in water holding capacity, organic matter, and then microbial activity, which we get from soil tests and Haney tests, is up at least 50%. There's lots of indicators and metrics that show, hey, you know, this is working. We're seeing positive results. We're seeing good things. So I think we're in the right direction. We're still perfecting a few things, but it's progress over perfection, for sure.” – Ladd

Regenerative practices have also boosted yields and reduced farm operating costs. On one of his fields, he has seen above-county-average  yields combined with input costs that are 15 percent of the typical cost of conventional potato farming. The secret? This field had been pasture land for years before Ladd planted potatoes, and these results demonstrated the undeniable benefits of applying regenerative practices to potato production.

“That's really part of the end goal is for us to get to that point where we can say, ‘hey, this is super profitable. It's good for the environment. It's good for soil. It's good for the farmer, for the bottom line.’ We know it's possible, but now, how do we perfect the process?” - Ladd Whalen

Ladd has also opened his farm to be a model for others. It previously served as a model regenerative farm for a large CPG company and now Ladd is working in partnership with The Nature Conservancy to pilot additional regenerative practices, gather trial data, host workshops, and educate other farmers in the area. 


Building A Brand & Business

Ladd’s journey into CPG was trial by fire. He explains how he didn’t even know what CPG stood for until a year into creating the Roots Potato Chips brand. He and his wife utilized the resources they could find, taking a few basic food processing and food safety courses before opening up their own chip manufacturing facility. One early learning was pairing down the number of SKUs. Roots started with an expansive list of 25 SKUs including a myriad of unique flavors, a line made with avocado oil, a line made with sunflower oil, and a set of organic products. That many SKUs quickly became unmanageable and they have now paired it down to five flavors and ten total SKUs (five SKUs for retail and five for food service).

Distribution and sales have also been a learning journey for Ladd. He began with one local grocer in Idaho and has now expanded into other natural and independent grocers, as well as certain regions of large retailers like Albertsons, Kroger, Walmart, and Whole Foods. . Their retail footprint is still very focused in Idaho and the surrounding states, allowing Roots to reduce complexity, maximize the value of their local appeal, and plan for paced profitable growth.

The delayed payments and upfront costs of retail (like free fills and slotting fees) have made Ladd and his team take a hard look at food service as a key growth driver,  where they hope to continue to grow sales with restaurants, hotels, and other food service accounts. 

Root’s main growth constraint is capacity, as they’re currently maxing out their small processing facility. Once they solve that problem, Ladd hopes to source from additional farms in the area with Roots serving as a catalyst to incentivize neighboring farmers to adopt regenerative practices while being paid a premium.. The challenge now, Ladd says, is finding funding that aligns with his regenerative mission. He explains how potential finance partners to date see promise in the business model, but are not prioritizing the regenerative aspect. 

“We want this to be a good project for the area and local economy. There's so much potential and interest from neighboring farmers, but there's not an adequate outlet for regenerative potatoes, which we could provide if we're able to scale up.” - Ladd


The Evolution Of Their Regenerative Story

Roots has always talked about regenerative agriculture on their potato chip bags, but their regenerative story has never been what has gotten the chips into stores. In Ladd’s experience, with the exception of Whole Foods, retailers have cared more about attributes like ‘locally-made’  and ‘artisan’ than ‘regeneratively-farmed.’Looking ahead, Ladd is focused on growing with natural channel retailers who value their unique regenerative story. 

“I do not know one account that we've landed that has said that it’s cool that you promote regenerative agriculture. Every account we landed was because we were an artisan potato chip company and we were local. We had a good product that people liked and they wanted to bring it in.” - Ladd

Roots is now working with the Soil & Climate Initiative (SCI) to validate their regenerative practices and certify their products. After exploring various options, Ladd chose SCI because their process recognizes farmer context and understands that regenerative practices are going to look different based on the crop-type and growing conditions. 


50% Market Share 4 Regen

Ladd speaks from his perspective as a farm and as a brand owner on how to increase market share for regenerative products. As a farmer, Ladd hopes to continue to see a shift in policy and support from the USDA. He is pleased to see an increase in the government’s climate-smart grants that help incentivize farmers to adopt new, regenerative practices. On the brand side, he thinks demand needs to be driven downstream to upstream, or “from table to farm, rather than farm to table”. Ladd explains how consumers need to be willing to pay a premium and seek out regenerative products, which will in turn pressure retailers to prioritize regenerative and request regenerative products from manufacturers and brands. 


This ReGen Recap was written by Katey Finnegan

The illustrations were created by Stacey Shaller

You can check out the full episode with Ladd Wahlen @ Roots Potato Chips HERE

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