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Forget pizza.

The potato is America’s favorite food, next to dairy products.

Idaho is the undisputed leader in the U.S. potato industry and that makes our famous potatoes the top crop in the state.

But it hasn’t always been that way.

Potato pest research

Research technician Marissa Steiner uses a microscope Aug. 7, 2019, to identify potato psyllids at the University of Idaho Kimberly Research and Extension Center. Psyllids transmit a bacterium responsible for a condition that creates a characteristic pattern known as 'zebra chip' making potato chips and french fries unmarketable. Whole crops might be rejected because of the dark rings in the potatoes cause by the psyllid.

CropLogic brings technology to farming

Research agronomist Sean Muldoon of CropLogic walks through a potato field  to check a sensor that records soil moisture levels Aug. 6, 2019, in a potato field south of Murtaugh.

CropLogic brings technology to farming

Research agronomist Sean Muldoon with CropLogic checks a sensor that records soil moisture levels August 2019 in a potato field in Murtaugh.

Science and modern technology have transformed potato production from the labor-intensive endeavor it used to be when the crop was hand-picked and sacked in the field. Today, ag pilots fertilize the crop from the air and remote sensors can detect when the plants need irrigation.

Inca Indians of Peru grew potatoes for thousands of years before the Spanish Conquistadors returned to Europe in the 16th century with two of the South American plants. Europeans were first suspicious of the plant because, being a member of the nightshade family, the green vegetation of the plant is toxic.

According to the Idaho Potato Commission, the state’s rich, volcanic soil, climate and irrigation create the ideal growing conditions for the tasty crop. Add to that several potato pioneers — namely Luther Burbank, the Santa Rosa, California-based botanist who created the Russet Burbank, Joe Marshall, the Twin Falls farmer who perfected the art of growing potatoes, and J.R. Simplot, the young man from Declo who made his fortune processing potatoes — and it’s no wonder potatoes are a big deal in Idaho.

While potatoes are an incredibly versatile food, about half of the potatoes in the U.S. are grown for french fries.

Idaho Famous Potatoes harvester

Pulled by a tractor, this harvester scoops potatoes from the field, then lifts the crop on a conveyor belt that shakes the dirt clods loose before depositing the potatoes into the back of a harvest truck. Before the invention of the harvester, potatoes were hand-picked by laborers and carried from the field in gunny sacks.

Idaho Famous Potatoes

A red potato is pulled up from the soil July 30, 2014, in Castleford.

Southern Idaho Regional Communications Center

Mr. Potato Head is used as a holder for a fly swatter Sept. 11, 2014, at Southern Idaho Regional Communications Center in Jerome.

Potato field by Bisbee

Hand-filled gunny sacks full of potatoes are seen on the Avant and Crawford north of Twin Falls in this early Clarence E. Bisbee photo. The crop yielded 446 bushels to the acre.

Potato abuse

A potato is prepared to be tested in the Texture Analyzer in December 2018 at the University of Idaho Research Extension Center in Kimberly. This machine measures the amount of pressure it takes to break the skin of the potato.

Ramseyer Century Farm

Fourteen-year-old Duane Ramseyer drives an F12 Farmall tractor during potato harvest in the early 1940s while his father, Homer Ramseyer, scatters sacks from a single-row digger for the pickers to use.

'Potato King' Joe Marshall

A young Duane Ramseyer of Filer stands on top of a truckload of potatoes during harvest in 1936, while his father, Homer Ramseyer, visits with Idaho’s 'Potato King' Joe Marshall, far left. Potato sacks were hand-filled and sewn in the field.

Rod Lake harvester

Harvest operator Cameron Baker of Burley loads Rod Lake’s potato crop onto Linden Wood’s truck Oct. 13, 2017, near Buhl.

Rod Lake potato harvest

A truck filled with Rod Lake’s potatoes prepares to hit the road Oct.12, 2017, near Buhl.

Potato harvest

Rod Lake’s potatoes are seen in this Oct. 13, 2017, photo taken near Buhl.

Potato blossoms

Potato plants bloom in a field near Kimberly. If fertilized, the blossoms might form a small green berry similar to a tiny tomato, but fertilization does not affect the production of potato tubers, which are harvested for food. Potatoes bloom near the end of the growing season.

Senescence in a potato field

An irrigation pivot waters a potato field Wednesday in Murtaugh. The brown color in the field indicates the crop is going into 'senescence' — which means the tubers are nearly mature and the potato vines are starting to die.  

Potato farming

A wheel line waters a potato field Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020, in Murtaugh.


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