Why did Idaho get a reputation for big potatoes?
In the early 1900’s Idaho only produced about 1% of the potatoes grown in the USA, New York (farms on Long Island) was the number one producer on nearly 400,000 acres. So, it’s been relatively recent that things changed.
The Ag reasons:
Idaho agricultural land was high desert, rich volcanic soil and lots of sage brush. Even now, we only get about 10-11 inches of moisture during the growing season. It took the creation of canals to bring water from the mountains, pumps to bring water from underground to the surface and systems to utilize water from the Snake River, which passes along the bottom of the state to get it out to fields.
The land was underpopulated and inexpensive, allowing many to settle and grow crops larger than what was needed for their own needs.
Mechanical tractors instead of horse drawn plows sped up the process of being able to disc, plant, plow and harvest quicker with way more efficiency.
JR Simplot was an early advocate for using fertilizer to have a better yielding crop. He once planted a field with potatoes and had only enough fertilizer to cover a portion of the dirt. Later on that year he found the ground that had fertilizer applied tripled yields over the non-fertilized ground.
The economy reasons:
The land was underpopulated and inexpensive, allowing many to settle and grow crops larger than what was needed for their own needs. They had to find a market beyond the borders of Idaho.
The railroads brought people to the West, rather than returning with empty cars the owners looked to crops from areas like Salinas CA and Eastern Idaho to fill those cars with fresh fruit and vegetables to go back to the populated areas of the East and Midwest.
The marketing reasons:
Imagine a potato grower hoping a train car filled with potatoes and then stopping in Chicago and other major cities to meet with grocery stores and restaurants to sell the spuds and convince the buyers that Idaho was a better place to grow potatoes than anywhere else. Joe Marshall did that.
How creative was it for Dario Toffenetti, owner of six restaurants and a hotel in NYC, Chicago and Florida to come out to Idaho during harvest and see a rail car full of giant Idaho® russets that were destined to go to hog and cattle feed to buy the lot right on the spot and sell them in his restaurants for 25 cents each, loaded with butter and sour cream? Filled his patrons up and they loved this steak house size potato.
Or the “taster” of food ingredients at Macy’s in 1926 decide that Idaho made the best tasting potato and declared that on the menu to his customers?
The Idaho Potato Commission was created in 1937, one of the first ever Commodity boards to promote fresh fruits and vegetables. In 1938 they advertised in Consumer newspapers and to the Foodservice business to business magazines.
When a fair was scheduled for San Francisco to represent all the states Commissioners approved a series of six post cards, many showing off the larger potatoes (many more small come from each plant, but Idaho sorted out the large ones to get a premium price for them) and when war broke out the artwork was changed to be focused on the military. Soldiers going to Idaho bases received these cards to send home to family and friends. They showed big potatoes and lots of them. Here is a link showing a few.
Emerging food service restaurant chains and high volume independents put Idaho potatoes on the written menu, from Lawry’s Prime Rib to Steak & Ale to Cracker Barrel and Chili’s and more recently Outback Steakhouse and Five Guys Burger and Fries.
When TV was in its infancy, the industry supported appearing on both the popular Today Show in the morning and the Tonight Show at night doing live television commercials initially and then having spokespersons with credibility such as two Idaho Governors (Cecile Andrus and Dirk Kempthorne) and the fitness expert Denise Austin for ten years during the time period that people were being “convinced” that low carb diets such as Atkin’s were the only way to lose weight.
As CEO of the Idaho Potato Commission, Frank Muir can tell you, we have a traveling Great Big Idaho Potato Truck going to multiple cities in the US to promote the healthy aspects of Idaho® potatoes at the same time promoting Meals On Wheels and this year with the American Heart Association’s Go Red for women campaign. We continue to advertise in print and electronic media to retail and food service and on network television with a fun campaign featuring two real Idaho growers. We are the primary sponsor of a football bowl, named after an agricultural product just like the first bowls were (Sugar, Cotton, Orange, etc.) as the Idaho Potato Bowl.