The State of the Idaho Potato
For more than 70 years, Idaho and potato have been synonymous the world over.
And, in spite of endless battles with fungi, worms and Dr. Atkins, the much-maligned spud is still the Gem State’s best-known export.Matt Furber investigates the importance of the potato to Idaho.
Photos byChris Pilaro and David N. Seelig.
Since 1928, when Idaho first put the spud on its license plates, Idaho and potato have been synonymous the world over.
The official ambassador for Idaho’s favorite spud,
the Russet Burbank, is named Spuddy Buddy. A bald, two-dimensional
potato with an animated face, Spuddy has jauntily advocated for the
Idaho potato around the globe for more than a decade now, promoting his
"World Famous Potatoes." Considering he helped sell the 12 billion
pounds of potatoes Idahoans wrestled from the desert last year, Spuddy
is working at least as hard as the "Famous Potatoes" license plate.
The humble potato may have never asked for the job, but Spuddy is part of perhaps the greatest vegetable marketing campaign ever, next to Popeye’s efforts to make children eat spinach.
The architect of this campaign, the Idaho Potato Commission, is currently celebrating its 70th year of plugging the Idaho potato ("Idaho" and "potato" both being registered trademarks).
Today, Idaho collects more in agricultural revenues from dairy and livestock than it does from potatoes, but the vibrancy of Idaho’s economy still has the spud to thank.
Potatoes accounted for $664 million, or 15 percent, of the $4.5 billion collected in agricultural tax revenues in 2006. Potato concerns altogether employ more than 40,000 people in the state.
The legacy of the potato in Idaho is apparent in many ways. The world’s largest potato sculpture sits atop a flatbed truck between Victor and Driggs, Idaho, while J.R. Simplot Company’s backing of Micron Technology Inc., the Ester Simplot Performing Arts Academy and countless other potato-sponsored events and organizations have been a boon to the citizens of Idaho.
But how did a land full of desert scrub brush become the most famous area in the nation for producing potatoes?
The soil of the Snake
As with many tales of the taming of the Wild West, water was central to the establishment of Idaho as the Potato State.
It all began with "Idaho Potato King" Joe Marshal and
his impoundment and diversion of water flowing into the Snake River. In
the early 1900s, the self-educated civil engineer and potato farmer was
influential in much of the early irrigation development. Having worked
with the Milner Brothers (who built the dam that precipitated
agriculture on the Twin Falls plain), Marshal helped line up other dams
and canals that watered crops
Consequently, Idaho potatoes are grown mostly in the southern half of the state along the Snake River. The heart of production is in southeastern Idaho, with most seed potatoes (new potato plants are not grown from traditional seeds but from pieces of potato known as seed potatoes) raised along cooler and typically more disease-resistant stretches of land near Ashton, at the head of the Snake River Plain.
The soil in the crescent of the Snake River Plain, along with its volcanic elements, is ideal for potatoes. "It has never been determined exactly what the soil contains that makes an outstandingly successful potato crop," the Idaho Potato Commission states in its book Aristocrat in Burlap: A History of the Potato in Idaho.
"When new land is brought under cultivation after centuries of ‘desert’ conditions where sagebrush, bitterbrush and a variety of grasses and forbs have been its only production, the first year usually produces an exceptionally fine crop."
Even with continuing application of chemical fertilizers, continues the book, "it never seems possible to duplicate the first-year crop when the potatoes are planted for the first time in desert soil and all of the trace minerals and native organisms are present."
The fact remains that, although soils and temperatures in Idaho are good for potatoes—Idaho’s climate of warm days and cool nights provides ideal conditions for the growing and production of potatoes—they don’t make it on their own. Irrigation must be vigorously regulated and nutrients must be continually added for conventional potato farming to succeed.
About 30 potato varieties are grown in Idaho—whittled down over a century from more than 1,000 natural varieties—but they all get the same conventional mono-crop treatment from farm to farm. Some potatoes make better bakers and others are best for the huge diversity in processed potato products. The Russet Burbank is great for making chips and fries, and French fries make up about 60 percent of the Idaho potato market.
The J.R. Simplot Company—the most well known of the more than two dozen firms that produce, process, pack and ship potatoes in Idaho—stopped selling fresh, whole potatoes in the 1990s, but markets about 200 processed potato products. Although Simplot farms and ranches on much of its 300,000 privately owned acres, most of its potato supply comes from independent growers in the Northwest, who contract with the spud mogul.
It was with a handshake that, in 1967, Simplot cornered the McDonald’s French-fry market, with its billions served. By the 1970s, the Pacific Northwest had overtaken the Northeast as the country’s leading potato producer. In 1971, potato chip sales topped $1 billion, and the U.S. per capita consumption of processed potato products surpassed fresh potato demand.
The potato’s downfall
Then disaster struck. In 1972, Dr. Robert Atkins introduced his low-carbohydrate, high-protein, high-fat diet. Potato sales bottomed out.
"The demand for fresh potatoes has gone like this," said Mark Johnson, tilting his arm at a downward angle. "When was the last time you ate a fresh potato?" Johnson, co-owner of Silver Creek Seeds in Picabo, is the only potato farmer in the Wood River Valley.
However, with the help of Spuddy—who now promotes the
plentiful health value of the potato, which has more vitamin C than a
Florida orange—the potato is clawing back some of its lost ground.
Consumer demand for processed potatoes is increasing, especially as
companies such as Frito-Lay swear off trans fats to make potato snacks
healthier. Brushing the soil off the eyes of a certified virus-free seed
potato imported from Canada last spring, Johnson beamed as he said
prices have gone up in the past two years, especially for dehydrated
Restaurants still serve heaps of Idaho potatoes. One certainly doesn’t need to travel very far to enjoy the potato and a bit of culture. Down the street from the J.R. Simplot Company headquarters in Boise, the chef at Bombay Grill on West Main Street makes his Aloo Gobi with the Russet Burbank. Sometimes all it takes is a little spice to give Spuddy a little flair.
Constant peaks and valleys in an ever-changing marketplace, such is the life of the Idaho potato. This fall, Johnson will harvest 600 acres of Russet Burbank, Ranger Russet, Shepody, Norcoda and Alturas seed potatoes in the Bellevue Triangle. The area is a good place to raise seed potatoes for three reasons. The fields are away from the disease, pest or fungal contamination that plagues most potato growers; they have a shorter growing season and cooler temperatures help control viruses, which is key to grower success.
Disease and pests have plagued the potato since it was first cultivated by the Incas in the Andes. The father of the Russet Burbank potato, Luther Burbank, was born in 1849, the year after late blight, Phytophthora infestans, destroyed the Irish potato crop. The progeny of Burbank’s potatoes showed resistance to the pathogen in Idaho, but late blight was in the United States to stay by the 1980s, arriving in Idaho in 1997.
The Colorado potato beetle, which made its way from North America to Europe (a parting legacy of World War I) also ruins potato crops. In addition to fungi, scabs, mildews and other pests and diseases that compromise the potato, late blight and the Colorado potato beetle are annual challenges all Idaho potato farmers face.
All but 1 percent of the state’s potatoes are grown conventionally, with heaps of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides applied according to integrated pest- and disease-management principles. The University of Idaho Extension Office will gladly sell you a 426-page, glossy book to help guide you through the puzzle of how and when to apply pesticides when Mother Nature unleashes her pestilence and disease.
Each year, industrial agriculture works to improve ways to grow potatoes. Most notorious was Monsanto’s genetically modified New Leaf potato, engineered to resist the Colorado potato beetle. Though New Leaf potatoes were intended to resist pests, it was the fry industry and foreign, then domestic, consumers who were repelled.
"(In 2001) We did take the position that we would not accept GMO (genetically modified organism) potatoes," said Fred Zerza, Simplot vice president of public relations. "We met resistance from Japanese and European customers and to some extent in the United States."
GMO is not over for Simplot. It is currently exploring its own GMO research. However, Zerza added that anything that might result in a "better potato" or "green technology" is at least five years away. Until scientists can select genes for a potato that will be palatable to the consumer, have a better flavor, or be less susceptible to bruising—making it more suitable for processing—farmers continue to produce potatoes with conventional methods, which is increasingly harder on the environment.
An organic future?
Mike Heath, an organic farmer who sells his potatoes and other produce at farmers’ markets in the Wood River Valley, is based in Buhl, southwest of Twin Falls. His M&M Farms is a collection of farming plots owned by people who want to see their land farmed organically.
Heath would like to start his potatoes from organic Idaho seed, but he hasn’t found a dependable grower, and organic rules allow him to start with conventional seed. But both Heath and Johnson have their eyes on the future. "I would grow organic seed if I could find a market," Johnson said. For now, after dealing with regular problems such as fixing flat tractor tires and working around the weather, weeds and water, Johnson’s challenge is simply to find relatively disease-free areas in which to raise seed potatoes.
While it seems there is no easy ride in the Idaho potato business, Heath has been successful in his bid to market potatoes as an organic farmer. He raises his potatoes on a seven-year rotation cycle that includes several years with potato fields planted in nitrogen-fixing alfalfa.
"I took my time learning, which the conventional farmer can’t do," Heath said, explaining that his operation is expanding with the help of consumer demand for organics. "We’re not ‘crazy’ anymore."
Dale Butler, who farms near Nampa, said an order for 240 acres worth of organic potatoes fell through in February, so he decided to plant the field in conventional pinto beans instead. Butler said that for organics, he is going to try to raise some seed potatoes on a more isolated plot of land in Nevada.
Butler, Johnson and Heath all agree there are great risks to growing organic in areas surrounded by conventional farms. If something happens, such as pest or disease infestation, the organic farmer can be held responsible. Conversely, the organic farmer’s produce can be contaminated by conventional over-spray. Even government-regulated spraying for problems like West Nile virus could be a problem. Heath said it is becoming important to establish organic management zones that would be protected from chemicals that disqualify farmers from organic certification. The Idaho State Department of Agriculture has designated some farmland as seed potato management areas, which are supposed to help control viruses that harm Johnson’s seed crop, for example.
"I like organic," said Butler,describing what he feeds his own family. "I have four little people who call me daddy and they like to eat. I believe organic is best for the land."
In the face of promising biotechnologies, organic farmers and some scientists are looking at sustainable farming practices and the promotion of diversity, both for gastronomic interest and for economic vitality. The organic 1 percent of potatoes grown last year, which did not even register on the state’s economic radar screen four years ago, could promise the future of the Idaho potato. "I am encouraging (farmers) to raise more reds, yellows, fingerlings and other premium price potatoes," said Frank Muir, president of the Idaho Potato Commission, adding that the Commission’s Russet Burbank ambassador would not be offended. "Spuddy is 100 percent supportive. He’s willing to share the wealth with his cousins."
Chronology of the Idaho Spud
Information in this timeline was mostly gleaned from A Potato Chronology by Richard E. Tucker. Images courtesy Idaho Potato Commission.
1836 Idaho’s first potato grower was not a farmer at all, but a Presbyterian missionary, Henry Spalding (right). He taught the Nez Perce Indians how to raise agricultural crops in the Lapwai area.
1840s "French fried" potatoes (pommes frites) appear in Paris, France, and begin to achieve popularity.
1871 Luther Burbank plants high yielding hybrid of Early Rose in his garden, later called Burbank.
1895 Potato chips are shipped in barrels, displayed in glass cases and sold in paper bags.
1903 The process for hydrogenation of fats (trans fats) is patented.
1909 January 4 John Richard (J.R.) Simplot (opposite page) is born in Iowa.
1914 Lon Sweet, a Colorado grower, selects a mutation of Burbank and calls it the Russet Burbank variety.
1923 J.R. Simplot quits school and goes into business (raising hogs) at Declo, Idaho.
1928 Simplot and Lindsay Maggart buy an electric potato sorter, a "remarkable machine," to sort their tubers. Simplot buys potato sorter from Maggart and sets up Simplot Produce Co. He stops growing potatoes and instead begins buying, selling, sorting and shipping them.
1934 Idaho ships 466 carloads of potatoes to New York City for about 2 percent of the New York City market.
1937 The Idaho Fruit and Vegetable Advertising Commission (IFGAC), precursor to today’s Idaho Potato Commission, is founded.
1942 The U.S. government declares potato chips to be an "essential food."
1942-45 Simplot furnishes over 50 million pounds of dehydrated potatoes to the U.S. Army. Germans study potential offensive uses of Colorado potato beetle against Great Britain. Simplot chemist Ray Dunlap begins experiments with freezing of potatoes for French frying.
1946 Simplot begins production of the first frozen French fries.
1948 Dick and Mac McDonald introduce milk shakes and French fries at their Los Angeles hamburger stand.
1950 East Germany accuses U.S. of scattering Colorado potato beetles over its potato crops.
1952 Marilyn Monroe wears a burlap potato bag for "You’d look good even in a potato sack" shoot.
1961 Production value of potatoes tops all other crops in Idaho.
1967 Simplot and Ray Kroc agree to sole use of Simplot frozen French fries at McDonald’s with a handshake.
1970 Potato chip sales top $1 billion.
1971 Per capita consumption of processed potato products surpasses that of fresh potatoes in the U.S.
1972 Dr. Robert Atkins introduces his high-protein, high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet program.
1976 The phrase ‘couch-potato’ is coined by a cartoonist.
1990 Northeast and Midwest farmers produce 29 percent of the U.S. potato crop. Pacific Northwest farmers produce 65 percent of the U.S. potato crop. Idaho Potato Exposition opens at Blackfoot, Idaho, as a museum to promote potato industry.
1992 Vice President Dan Quayle fails to correctly spell potato at a Trenton, NJ, elementary school.
1994 The character of Potato Buddy, later re-christened Spuddy Buddy, was created by the Idaho Potato Commission to help promote the Idaho potato.
1997 Idaho produces 5.6 million metric tons of potatoes, mostly Russet Burbanks.
2000 Russet Burbank represents 74 percent of Idaho’s total potato production.
2001 Per capita utilization of frozen potato products in U.S. is estimated at 29.4 pounds per person.
2002 McDonald’s USA announces plan to reduce trans fat from French fries. U.S. is fourth behind China, Russia, and India in potato production with 21,011,030 metric tons.
2004 The low-carbohydrate diet vilifying the consumption of potatoes, promoted by Dr. Robert Atkins, peaks. J.R. Simplot Co. introduces Infinity Fry™, a zero-grams trans fat frozen French fry.
2006 Canada, Korea, Mexico ban Idaho potatoes and soils after potato cyst nematode (PCN) is found at an Idaho grading plant.
2007 J.R. Simplot, 97,
crashes scooter at Boise State University football game in Phoenix,