The volcanic ash, long winters, elevated rainfall and long summer days all
combine to make the soil conditions in Fremont County, Idaho, ideal for
producing superior seed potatoes. Photo by Heather Kae Photography

An American Icon: The Idaho Potato

BY DOUG HARE

Where do home fries and hashbrowns, chips and French fries, gnocchi and mashed potatoes originate? You’ve probably never seen a packet of potato seeds for sale because potatoes don’t grow true to seed, like apples, they propagate vegetatively or asexually.

Every year, farmers have to plant small sprouting potatoes, or seed potatoes, in order to reproduce the specific varieties they want, of which there are over a thousand.

The Idaho Certified Seed Law prevents commercial potato growers from planting their own saved spuds, which have a higher probability of carrying disease. Instead, they’re required to purchase seed potatoes from certified seed potato growers to assure the health of their crop and the healthy proliferation of their specific varieties.

Seed potato management areas have special pest management measures and inspection and isolation requirements to assure plants are less exposed to diseases like blight and Potato Virus Y, or PVY. Commercial potato production is not allowed within seed potato management areas due to contamination risks.

Seed potatoes are tubers that are specifically grown to be free from disease, providing consistent and healthy yields when halved and replanted all across the country in warmer climates. The areas where seed potatoes can be grown are arefully selected from locations with cold, harsh winters that kill pests and mold spores, and warm summers with long sunshine hours and ample rainfall for optimal growth.

Chances are that the last loaded baked potato you ate had its origins in southern Idaho, a region that produces more seed potatoes than any other in the United States.

Nestled at the southern edge of the Yellowstone Caldera, the soil around Ashton, Idaho, is rich with volcanic ash and the altitude and snowpack help, providing a long winter deep freeze that cleanses the soil of mold spores and other pathogens.

Outside of Ashton in greater Fremont County lies the world’s largest seed potato farming area. Seed potatoes were not tried as a crop until 1920, but farmers quickly realized that their soil and climate conditions were ideal, similar to the Peruvian Andes where potatoes were first domesticated some 9,000 years ago. You might not get that impression driving through the quaint town of Ashton, but that’s because most of the action happens underground, off the beaten path with the scenic vistas, mountainous backdrops and the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River drawing the eye more than the endless, rolling, finely combed dirt fields fading into the distance.

On the first day of May, third-generation seed potato farmer Tom Howell is in downtown Ashton, where massive grain elevators tower over Main Street and an occasional freight train pulls directly into town for a grain refill. Many of the shops don’t look like they ever open for business.

Howell seems to make small talk with everyone who passes by on the sidewalk. It’s a small town with a population that hovers around 1,000. “Everybody knows each other ‘round here,” says Howell, as he pulls out his keys and opens one of the closed-up shops. Still, due to its geographic location near so many national parks and recreation areas, Ashton reports nearly 2 million visitors a year: sightseers, outdoorsmen and passers-though alike.

A team of seasonal workers inspects the crop for deformed, damaged and diseased specimens before they can be labeled as certified Idaho seed potatoes and shipped off to be planted at commercial potato farms around the country. Photo by Doug Hare
Inside a storage cellar, seed potatoes are stacked high and kept in closely monitored conditions for heat and humidity in order to prevent mold spores and other pathogens from damaging the crop. Photo by Heather Kae Photography

Letting me in, what looked like a thrift shop turns out to be a museum of sorts: Native American relics, souvenirs from the now-defunct Bear Gulch Ski Area, early 1900s newspaper articles about the American Dog Derby, WWII artifacts, and, of course, exhibits about the history of seed potato farming in southeastern Idaho are jam-packed into a space oozing with nostalgia. For a hardscrabble town founded in 1906, Ashton has acquired its fair share of history.

According to some dusty magazines on the counter, agriculture has always been the lifeblood of Ashton. Shortly after the first settlers arrived in the 1890s, several canals were developed to divert water from streams running off the Yellowstone Plateau and Teton Range. But soon, settlers discovered that some farmland, mostly to the east, is high enough and close enough to the Teton Range that crops can grow without irrigation due to increased rainfall making its way from a weather corridor extending to the Pacific coast.

After a brief tour, Howell tells me he has already sent the seed potatoes from his 1,500-acre farm to market, but he’s taking me up to Baum Farms to see the process of exporting certified disease-free seed potatoes—one of the busiest times of the year for farmers in the area. The regular growing season usually begins in mid-May, and harvesting starts mid- to late-September depending on soil temperatures.

On the ride out of town, Howell opens up, pointing out a new irrigation system and the names of all the farms we pass along the way. “Oh, we grow all kinds of potato varieties, but the farmers around here prefer to put Russet Burbanks on their own plates.” Although he worked in the ski industry in his younger years, Howell eventually returned to his roots as a third generation seed potato farmer and has been supporting his family since 1971, despite some years when the harvest barely paid the bills.

“For me, I enjoy the variety of tasks of seed potato farming. There is always something different to be doing,” Howell said as we pulled up to Baum Farms where a series of conveyors belts are moving an endless stream of seed potatoes through machines designed to remove rocks and other debris. “It’s really a family operation with my son and I doing most of the work until we hire migrant workers to help out during the busiest times of year.”

The inside of the cavernous potato cellar is a sight to behold, especially when filled with mountains of seed potatoes. The climate control system and ventilation apparatus are much more high-tech than the humble exterior of the cellar would suggest, but absolutely essential in keeping the crop from degrading during storage periods lasting up to a year.

The movement of seed potatoes from the cellar is nothing less than mesmerizing to watch. They travel through a series of conveyor belts, heavy machinery and a row of workers methodically picking out damaged and diseased specimens, past the watchful eyes of a state- certified inspector, and finally onto a truck filled to the brim with now-certified Idaho seed potatoes.

Driving home to Montana, after the hypnotic spell of thousands of dancing seed potatoes had worn off, I began to think about the how the seed potato farmers in Fremont County leave their old farming equipment in their fields on display as a salute to a bygone era—a museum exhibit in plein air.

While the technology of farming seed potatoes has visibly improved over the last century, so much about farming the humble seed potato remains the same. It offers a connection to the land, the dignity of a hard day’s work, continuity between generations of family members working the fields together and, at the end of the day, a delicious sustenance to help us persevere through the hard times. Pass the ketchup.

Doug Hare is a staff writer and the distribution director for Mountain Outlaw magazine.