If you walk into an Iowa or Missouri Walmart and buy a bag of onions marked from Iowa, there’s a good chance they came from Kittleson Brothers.

“It’s either us or my father-in-law,” says Beth Rachut of the onions, which are packaged in Minnesota and branded Iowa-grown.

Beth and her husband, Steve, are in the onion business. They also grow potatoes. Steve grew up raising onions with his parents in northern Iowa. 

In 2022, the couple took the helm of Kittleson Brothers. The century old St. Ansgar business was started by Kittleson brothers Karl and Jake in 1922, then transferred to Karl’s sons Charles and John. When Charles became ill, Steve Rachut stepped in to assist John and joined the partnership in 2014. He and Beth assumed ownership last year.

The name Kittleson Brothers is no stranger to regional grocery store aisles.

Kittleson Brothers has delivered onions and potatoes to grocery stores in Mason City, Charles City, Clear Lake and Waterloo, as well as Albert Lea and Austin, Minnesota, since the 1980s. They recently added Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and Coralville Hy-Vees to their line-up.

Products are also available at local outlets and an on-site store.

“Many people think they have to buy right away in the fall, but they can still get a bag of potatoes for Easter or through the spring,” Beth says.

The supply of onions harvested in fall typically lasts until around March. The potatoes will be gone by June.

She says people come from near and far for the Iowa grown goodness. “They remember coming with grandma and will drive hours to get here.”

Location matters

The Kittleson Brothers operation taps a unique northern Iowa natural resource.

Their potatoes and onions are grown in peat soil. 

Peat soil is a deposit of incompletely decomposed plants. Perennial waterlogging of the soil slows the rate of plant decomposition and led to the accumulation of peat.

Peat deposits are found in some form in all 50 states. The material is often mixed into bagged potting soil. 

Peat's resistance to drought is a blessing for Kittleson Brothers. The cool northern Iowa climate helps as well.

Kittleson Brothers grow 35 acres of onions and 30 acres of potatoes. Steve says the onions will yield 1,000 to 1,200, 50-pound bags per acre in a good year. Each acre of potatoes will yield around 600, 50-pound bags.

The Rachuts feed cattle and grow corn and soybeans in addition to the specialty crops. They also operate a popular sweet corn business in the summer. 

“It really gives [us] a chance to see and converse with both sides of agriculture production,” says Beth. “We understand both traditional and unique crops and their markets.”

Meeting consumer demand

Understanding consumer de­mand is crucial, especially in the specialty crop market.

Potato consumption has trended downward in recent years. “People don’t eat potatoes at every meal like they used to,” says Beth, a Mitchell County Farm Bureau leader. “People are more likely to eat potato soup, and of course French fries, but the usability is different now.” 

Russet potatoes have always been the backbone of the market and occupy the majority of Kittleson Brothers' acres. They also grow red potatoes. 

But gold potatoes are growing in popularity. “We started growing them five, six years ago in response to consumer demand,” says Beth, “and will likely increase those acres going forward as long as that’s what the consumer wants.” 

Consumer demand also drives onion production. The yellow onion is a household staple, but red onions, with their color and milder flavor, are becoming more popular. Last year, Kittleson Brothers planted 1 to 2 acres of red onions and will likely increase that this spring.

Growing challenges

As farmers understand, there are still challenges to growing potatoes and onions. 

They face disease pressure, particularly Stemphylium Leaf Blight in onions.

And weeds exist in those fields just like any other. 

“We’re very limited in the herbicides we can use, especially on the onions,” says Steve. “Timing is critical.” The fields are “walked” for weed control in summer, mostly as a clean-up measure.

Steve and a full-time employee tend to the growing crops and business.

A seasonal part-time team comes on board in the fall for harvest, sorting, grading, processing and bagging through the winter.

The warehouse in St. Ansgar is designed for maximum efficiency and temperature control. “We utilize the natural outside air to cool the building,” says Steve, “without allowing it to freeze.”

Tunnels under the slatted on­ion storage floor enable ventilation, as do conveyors used to move the produce.

Cultivating new markets and educating consumers is ongoing. 

“We’ll keep focusing on consumer trends and producing what the consumer wants,” says Beth, “whether we sell them at our store, to the local food truck or fresh market, or a grocery chain. We’re proud to be a part of this business. And proud to produce food for Iowans and beyond.”

Queck-Matzie is a freelance writer from Greenfield.