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Q&A: Railroads and the Idaho Potato

Q:

How did the Idaho Potato become available outside of Idaho and nearby states? It seems like I have always been able to find it wherever I travel.

A:

The reputation of Idaho potatoes and its term “famous potatoes” was due to a number of factors, including marketing, advertising, and publicity that even preceded the formation of the Idaho Potato Commission in 1937, as one of the very first association, boards, or commissions.

How did the distribution of Idaho potatoes become so wide spread?  Part of the story can be found on our website in the book by Jim Davis titled “The Aristocrat in Burlap.”

The United States Department of Agriculture estimates were first made for the state of Idaho in 1882, and that year they recorded that 2,000 acres were harvested at the average price of $1.67.  The total value of the potato market in Idaho that first year was $250,000.

In 1885, after the Oregon Short Line Railroad was completed across Southern Idaho, the Boise newspaper was encouraging Idahoans to plant potatoes by calling the attention of farmers to the “possible advantages of raising potatoes for the Eastern market.”  The railroad was very instrumental in expanding the growth of Idaho potatoes across the country.  Our largest markets to this day include New York and Illinois, both major destinations for Idaho potatoes. In addition, railroad spurs or forks in the road became natural drop off points for Idaho potatoes.

In 1890, Idaho was admitted to the Union as the 43rd state.  And, by fall of 1890, Idaho® potatoes were becoming well known in produce circles.  Frank Drake of Hailey was awarded $125 as a prize for the third-heaviest yield of one acre of potatoes in the United States!  Drake was a prominent rancher living just out of Hailey, and he also developed a seed potato that was claimed to be the “most prolific known.” Drake decided to name it “The Idaho” but the Wood River Times of October 17, 1890 decided it would always be called “Drake’s Idaho.”

Then came news that Thomas Wend of Shoup had received a $100 award offered by a Philadelphia seed dealer for the heaviest potatoes raised from seed purchased from him in 1890.  The six potatoes weighed 17 pounds. In another blog I’ll reveal the phenomenon known as the giant Idaho baked potatoes, now found on steak house menus across the country.

By the way, Idaho® potato is not a variety.  We grow several varieties of russets as well as red, yellow, and fingerlings.  It designates where the potatoes were grown…in Idaho.  Certification marks ensure that consumers are purchasing potatoes that have been grown in the state of Idaho, something that we protect very diligently.