Two Idaho farmers talk about the labor-intensive and complex process behind growing, harvesting and processing russets
by Amelia Levin
Idaho’s climate of warm days and cool nights, combined with mineral-rich volcanic soil, make perfect growing conditions for the hearty potato crop.
“There are literally lava beds around us because we have a number of extinct volcanoes west of Idaho Falls and Blackfoot,” says Stephanie Bench, sales representative at Wada Farms, a large producer of Idaho potatoes.
First planting usually occurs at the end of April after the snow thaws in the more southern portions of Magic Valley, a region in south-central Idaho, and a week or so later in southeastern Idaho. It’s then that potato farmers “have to deal with everything Mother Nature throws at us,” says Bench, who grew up on a potato farm in Idaho. “There are so many variables; you don’t want to put the tuber in the ground too early because if it’s too cold, it won’t grow.” This past growing season, however, saw some of the highest temperatures on the record in the state, causing stress on the plant, which can potentially lead to lower yields and sizes.
To plant the crop, a potato planter uses knives to cut into the soil every few inches while dropping seed potatoes in the holes. Seed potatoes are essentially small potatoes that a planter cuts up before dropping them into the holes. From there, “it’s all about watering all summer long to make sure they don’t get too dry or too wet,” says Jill Crapo Cox, a fourth-generation farmer and vice president of sales for her great-grandfather’s farm, Sun-Glo of Idaho, which now spans 43,000 acres and produces about 55,000 pounds of potatoes annually. Sun-Glo also manages its own certified seed farm and produces seed potatoes for other farmers across the U.S.
There are two main types of russet potatoes grown in Idaho: Burbank, being the most prominent and oldest breed, and the Norkotah, which was introduced in the 80s and has a larger profile with higher yields. Many Idaho farms now also grow red and gold potatoes, as well as other russet varieties.
The majority of the harvest takes place sometime between mid-September and mid-October and lasts three to four weeks. “Some schools in the southeast Idaho area will shut down for two weeks so everyone can help with the harvest,” says Bench, who notes that in addition to families and kids, even teachers will chip in to help. It’s even a rite of passage for young teenagers to drive the short bed trucks from the potato fields to the cellars and back again.
“I started driving a truck when I was in the third grade,” Cox says. Now that the trucks are much larger, the driving crew consists mostly of teenagers and adults.
During harvest, two trucks drive side by side, with one digging out the potatoes and dumping them into the back of the second truck. When that truck is fully loaded, it’s driven to a cellar, where the truck backs up to unload the loot. “And then, it’s back to the field to repeat this process all day and all night,” Cox says.
Once harvested, potatoes are immediately stored in a large dome-shaped temperature-controlled cellar, where they will sit dormant — dirt still on them and all — for 30 days to “go through the sweat,” Bench says. Potatoes have a lot of natural moisture, so this is the process in which they release some of that moisture. It also helps “set” the skins to prevent them from peeling.
At the processing plant — a busy scene of conveyor belts, levies and pulls transferring potatoes every which way — potatoes are first washed and dried and then graded, sized and packaged according to size. All this is done via cameras and artificial intelligence that’s monitored by a manager in an office. But some processors still use manual labor to pack boxes by hand and lift them onto crates. In fact, it’s a point of pride for some.
While the 3-, 5- and 10-pound bags go to the grocery stores, the 50-pound cartons will go to foodservice distributors. Smaller potatoes are sorted out and sent off to become dehydrated potato flakes for use in soups, instant mashed potatoes and other products. Still others are sent off to become our beloved French fries or potato chips.
For the most part, foodservice distributors and other buyers maintain regular contracts because they typically know how much product they’ll need, Bench says. The majority of potatoes coming out of Idaho are shipped by truck, with the rest by rail, which is cheaper but takes longer to arrive, according to Bench.
The busiest potato-buying seasons are around Thanksgiving and Christmas, as well as other major holidays during the year. “Basically, we’ll see a spike in demand whenever people are celebrating,” Bench says.
While some crops saw low yields and supply chain issues this past year as a result of the pandemic, potatoes have continued to thrive. “There is so much work and effort that goes into getting the potato from the field to the consumer,” Bench says.