Consider the potato: Grown underground, covered with dirt, and not much to look at. But don’t let its humble exterior fool you — this mighty tuber’s power and potential can’t be overstated. Potatoes are nutritional powerhouses, appeal to a wide range of diets and palates, and are extremely versatile in just about every dish from appetizer to dessert.
We were honored earlier this month to head out to Idaho with the Idaho Potato Commission to learn more about the annual potato harvest, to watch the potato processing in action, and to sample a mind-boggling array of delicious recipes created with potatoes. After four days of eye-opening scenes and amazing facts, we’ll never look at a potato the same way again.
For starters, the Idaho countryside is stunning. Wide-open fields are framed by fluffy clouds, and, as you head further East, ringed by the majestic Teton mountain range. Idaho’s climate and topography is uniquely suited to growing potatoes – warm days, cool nights, and rich volcanic soil. Idaho harvests 300,000 acres of potatoes each year, amounting to some 13 billion pounds of potatoes. (That sounds like a lot, until you consider that the potato is America’s favorite vegetable, and that the average American eats 110 pounds of potatoes each year.) Nearly one-third of the country’s potatoes are produced in Idaho.
Potatoes are planted in the spring, usually April, and then are harvested six months later, in October, which means that we arrived just in time to see a flurry of potato-related activity. “The ‘magic’ date is October 15,” says Don Odiorne, the vice president of food service for the Idaho Potato Commission. “There are still schools around here that let kids out for the potato harvest.”
Our first stop was at Hoff Farm, a potato farm run by James Hoff, who is a fourth-generation potato grower. Hoff’s 2,000-acre farm grows 250 acres of potatoes. With potato harvesters that dig four rows at at time, Hoff says, working 12 rows at a time can yield 30,000 pounds of potatoes in four minutes. Once harvested, the potatoes are stored in one of two large sheds. The potatoes are stacked as high as 18 feet but they are given a continuous supply of air and humidity to preserve their freshness. Combined, the two sheds can store an astonishing 7.5 million pounds of potatoes until they’re ready to move on to their next destination.
The following day we got a chance to see the next step in the process, where potatoes are sorted and processed at Wada Farms. Wada Farms, a family-owned business, started out in 1943 with 160 rented acres and now farms on more than 30,000 acres. We toured its 140,000 square-foot fresh potato packing warehouse, located in Pingree, ID.
The potatoes undergo an amazing journey at the warehouse, as they are cleaned, brushed, sorted, sized, and sent off in various directions based on size and shape. While some potatoes get bagged up to be sold in large quantities, others get a special plastic wrap to be sold individually as baking potatoes.
What else happens to potatoes? We toured two other processing plants – the Lamb Weston fry plant, where we watched French fries, tater tots, and hash browns being made; and Idahoan, a dehydration plant, where potato are dried into slices and flakes for instant scalloped or mashed potatoes, packaged potato products, and other uses. Since both plants use proprietary equipment and processes, we were not allowed to take photographs there, but suffice to say that there is an amazing range of tasty foods that potatoes can be made into.
Coming up in our next blog post: all about eating potatoes, from nutrition to recipes. Many thanks to the Idaho Potato Commission, to our new friends at all of the farms and plants we visited, and to the bloggers and nutritionists who made this such a fun trip. Here we all are in – where else? – a potato field, where we had a chance to dig our own potatoes at Brett Jensen Farms:
Photo credit: Don Odiorne
Blogger disclosure: The Idaho Potato Commission paid for my trip to Idaho, however I did not receive compensation for this post. All opinions expressed are my own.