Potato Farming in Washington

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 5/19/2020
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 21039
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Potatoes have been grown in Washington longer than any other current major crop, reaching the region by at least the 1790s and becoming widely cultivated by Northwest Indian tribes decades before non-Native settlers arrived and also began farming potatoes, along with other new crops. However, major commercial potato production is relatively recent. Potatoes were raised commercially in the Skagit, Yakima, and Kittitas valleys from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but it was not until after World War II that massive irrigation made the Columbia Basin of Central Washington the most productive potato-growing region in the world, with per-acre yields twice the national average. Washington is now [2020] second nationally in potato production with 20 percent of the total, behind only neighboring Idaho. In 2019 potatoes were the state's second-most-valuable crop. Ninety percent of Washington potatoes are processed in state, mostly into frozen french fries. Most Washington potato products are sold outside the state, more than half exported to other countries.

Northwest Native American Potato Cultivation

Potatoes are unique among the state's major crops in that they were cultivated across what is now Washington well before the arrival of the British fur traders and American settlers who introduced apples, wheat, cattle, cherries, and most other current agricultural commodities. Like those, potatoes are not native to the region, but they have been grown in Northwest Native American gardens since at least the late 1700s, decades before the Hudson's Bay Company first planted wheat, apples, and other crops at fur-trading posts in the future Washington in the 1820s.

While the newcomers brought potatoes along with other farm animals and plants, their accounts consistently report Indians throughout the region already raising thriving potato crops. Even as they established farms, Hudson's Bay traders bought large quantities of potatoes from local Indians, and later-arriving American missionaries and settlers also purchased potatoes from Indian tribes. The 1841 exploring expedition led by Charles Wilkes (1798-1877) reported potato patches at Indian villages around Puget Sound and early settlers on Whidbey Island noted Indians had been cultivating potatoes there for years, some traveling from as far as the Olympic Peninsula to tend and harvest palisaded potato patches.

Potato varieties cultivated by Northwest Indians reached the region by a very different route than those brought later by non-Native settlers. The newcomers' potatoes, like most of the many kinds now grown around the world, derived from varieties that arose in Europe after Spanish explorers introduced the potato there from South America, where it was first developed and cultivated by indigenous peoples some 6,000 years ago. However, genetic testing of potato varieties long cultivated by Native groups in the Northwest, including the Makah and Quileute on the Olympic Peninsula, showed they are much more closely related to varieties from Chile and Mexico than to those developed in Europe, indicating they came to the Northwest more directly from those areas and not via Europe.

One variety studied, the Makah Ozette, may have originated with a short-lived settlement attempt in 1792 at Neah Bay, near a major Makah village. The settlers from Spain and Mexico abandoned their fort and garden within months, but potatoes they planted survived and the Makah were soon cultivating the plant in their own gardens. Makah reliance on the potato was noted by early chroniclers, but it was not until the 1980s that the unique Makah Ozette fingerling potato was recognized by commercial breeders and grown outside the Makah Reservation.

Progenitors of other potato varieties cultivated by Washington tribes, including the To-Le-Ak grown by the Quileute at La Push farther south on the Olympic Peninsula, could also have been brought from Mexico or South America by Spanish navigators who beginning in the 1770s became the first non-Indians to explore the future Washington. It is also possible that like horses, which reached the Northwest in the early 1700s via trade between Indian tribes, potatoes may have made their way northward along indigenous trade networks.

However potatoes first reached the Northwest, area tribes took readily to growing them because they had long cultivated other root crops, including wapato, native onion and lily species, and especially camas, a major food source throughout the region, from Nez Perce lands along what is now the Washington-Idaho border to Coast Salish communities on Puget Sound. Due to their greater productivity, for many tribes "potatoes largely supplanted camas as a dietary staple by the 1860s" (Barsh and Murphy).

A Coast Salish potato patch was likely the scene of one of the best-known events in early Washington history -- the shooting of a pig that triggered the San Juan Island Pig War, the standoff between the U.S. and Great Britain over competing claims to the San Juan Islands. American settler Lyman Cutlar famously touched off the "war" (in which the pig would be the only casualty) when he shot a Hudson's Bay Company boar rooting in what are usually referred to as "his" potatoes. Cutlar, like many Euro-American men settling the islands, had married a woman from a local tribe and, as San Juan historian Boyd Pratt points out, "it was probably her potato patch the boar had rooted through: she brought her culture's traditional method of cultivating potatoes that had been adapted from camas production" (Pratt, 24).

"Reclaiming" Land for Potato Farming

As they had for local Indians, potatoes quickly became a staple for the settlers arriving from the East in increasing numbers from the 1840s onward. Their high yield, nutritional value, and ease of storing and preparing -- fresh potatoes can be stored for months and, unlike wheat and other grains, don't need to be ground into flour to eat -- made them an important subsistence crop for new homesteaders. U.S. Army soldiers and others stationed temporarily in the region also grew potatoes. Perhaps fittingly, one of those early potato farmers -- future Civil War general and U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885), who raised potatoes while stationed at Columbia (later Vancouver) Barracks -- became the namesake of Grant County in Central Washington, which would become the top potato-producing county in the nation.

In the 1850s potatoes were among the crops shipped from Washington to California during the gold rush there. However, while potatoes were easily grown across Washington in quantities suitable for home consumption and limited trade, it would take some time, and substantial adjustments to the land, before they could be grown commercially in large quantities. Both sides of the Cascade Mountains, which divide Washington into distinctly different climate zones, had the potential for producing large quantities of potatoes, but in both cases land had to be "reclaimed," in the terminology of the time, before it could reach that potential. In the dry lands east of the mountains, reclamation took the form of adding water via irrigation, while in wet Western Washington land was reclaimed for farming by draining it of excess water.

The Skagit Valley in Northwest Washington offered perfect growing conditions for potatoes, but the marshes and wetlands of the river delta flooded frequently and were too wet for farming. The homesteaders who settled the valley in the late 1800s, many of them immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia, drained wetlands and built dikes to control floodwaters in order to establish farms, many of which are still producing potatoes. As twenty-first century Skagit Valley potato farmer Roger Knutzen put it, describing the efforts of his great-grandparents and other homesteaders in the 1890s, "[T]hey reclaimed this entire Skagit Valley ... they dug ditches and drained the ground ... so that they could farm it" (The Gamble). Nearby on Whidbey Island, immigrant farmers from China, Holland, and elsewhere also drained land and raised large crops of potatoes.

With the success of reclamation efforts in Western Washington, both the number of acres planted in potatoes statewide and the quantity produced nearly doubled between 1890 and 1900. That increase helped meet the rising demand for goods of all kinds from Washington triggered by the Klondike Gold Rush, which began in 1897. Many gold-seekers heading to Alaska and the Yukon stocked up on potatoes and other food and supplies in Seattle, boosting the economy of the entire region. Potatoes continued to thrive on the reclaimed lands of the Skagit Valley -- the crop was Skagit County's most valuable as of 2020 -- but in the early twentieth century the center of potato production in Washington shifted to the east side of the Cascades.

Farmers on the dry east side had long dug ditches to bring irrigation water from rivers to their fields, and over the years they got together to build larger irrigation systems. But it was not until after the Reclamation Act of 1902 made federal funding available to local irrigation systems that sufficient water for substantial potato production became available in Central and Eastern Washington. One of the first areas to benefit was the Yakima Valley.

"The Great Big Baked Potato"

With irrigation water flowing, Yakima Valley farmers were able to grow large quantities of potatoes -- and to grow very large potatoes. Russet Burbanks, a then-new variety, grew so large in the valley that growers had problems selling them because they were considered too big for restaurant use. This difficulty was overcome with help from the Northern Pacific Railway, one of the transcontinental lines crossing Washington, which brought more settlers to the region and helped transport products, including potatoes, to market. NP dining-car superintendent Hazen Titus saw the huge Yakima Valley Russet Burbanks in 1908 and was told about the problems marketing them.

"Titus bought as many of the giant potatoes as the farmers could grow, baked them and served them with butter to the hungry diners heading west in his rail cars. The potatoes were such a hit with diners that they became the signature trademark of the railroad ... [whose] tracks were forever known as the 'Route of the Great Big Baked Potato'" (The Gamble).

By the 1920s, the Kittitas Valley also had substantial land under irrigation and people were moving there to raise potatoes and other crops. Completion in 1932 of the Kittitas Reclamation District's High Line Canal carrying water from the upper Yakima River to and beyond Ellensburg further increased irrigation and potato production in the Kittitas Valley. The new water supply helped mitigate the effects of the Great Depression. While the Depression brought hard times it also provided the catalyst for the massive Columbia Basin Project, which would transform many aspects of life in the state, not least its potato industry.

The Columbia Basin Project

From the time the first non-Native settlers began trickling into Central Washington's Columbia Basin in the 1870s they recognized the agricultural potential in the rich soils and long sunny growing season -- if only there were sufficient water. An obvious answer was bringing irrigation water from the Columbia River, and by 1892 there was a proposal to do so by building a dam on the river at Grand Coulee. But the cost was huge. Even after demand for electric power grew in the twentieth century, the power-generating potential was not enough to gain support. When funding came in 1933 irrigation and power were secondary -- Grand Coulee Dam was one of many public-works projects designed to provide jobs for unemployed Americans during the Depression.

The irrigation project was put on hold during World War II. Electricity from Grand Coulee and other dams powered Washington's growing defense industry. After the war inexpensive electricity encouraged industrial and urban growth and also became widely available across rural Washington, bringing lighting, heat, and labor-saving devices to Columbia Basin farms. Irrigation construction got underway in the late 1940s, with water flowing in large quantities by the early 1950s. Eventually the project served more than 650,000 acres of potential farmland. With water, electricity, and plenty of land available, farmers and would-be farmers, many of them World War II veterans, began flocking to the Columbia Basin to try raising potatoes and other crops.

It wasn't easy, and not all succeeded. In May 1952, veteran Donald Dunn (ca. 1922-2005) was the beneficiary of a "Farm-in-a-Day" give-away, part a festival celebrating the arrival of irrigation water, in which volunteers built an entire farm near Moses Lake in 24 hours. In its first year the farm produced a bountiful crop of potatoes, beans, and more, and that fall Dunn showed off his potato harvest to visiting politicians and reporters. But within a few years he fell into debt and had to sell the farm. Many other farms also failed.

For those who succeeded, rewards were considerable. Washington's total potato acreage, which had declined to 26,000 acres in 1950, climbed to more than 50,000 by 1965, including some 42,000 acres in the Columbia Basin, which was producing huge quantities of potatoes per acre. In fact, with water available, the area's long growing season (many parts average more than 200 frost-free days annually), long hot sunny summer days and cool nights (similar to those in the Andes where potatoes originated), and good soils, eventually produced the world's highest yields. By the early 1960s, potato growers there were harvesting more than 30 tons per acre and the state's overall yield topped 15 tons per acre.

The Columbia Basin Project boosted not only potato production but also population, which tripled in the project area in the 30 years after irrigation began. Only a fraction of newcomers directly worked the farms. The influx of farmers promoted the growth of "towns built by potatoes" (Olsen interview). Quincy in western Grant County "was a speck," according to third-generation potato farmer Rex Calloway, when his grandfather started raising potatoes nearby in the 1950s (Francovich). It grew as businesses and infrastructure developed to serve new farms around it, as did Warden in eastern Grant County. And the rise of potato processing brought further growth and industrial development to area towns.

Processing Potatoes

Most potatoes grown in the Columbia Basin were Russet Burbanks, the "great big baked potato" popularized by the NP half a century earlier. Until the mid-1960s most were sold on the fresh market, and not just for baking. They made good french fries and the fast-food hamburger chains reshaping American eating habits bought large quantities fresh for that purpose. That would change. Beginning in the late 1940s, as freezers became common in grocery stores and homes, the J. R. Simplot Company of Idaho, a leading potato producer and pioneer in food processing, developed the first commercially successful frozen fries. The processing industry expanded through the 1950s as potatoes, especially the Russet Burbank, which "handles processing and freezing well" (Kyle), were increasingly manufactured into fries, hash browns, tater tots, and other frozen or dried products.

Processing plants were somewhat slow to move into the Columbia Basin, despite its growing potato production and inexpensive electricity. Only six operated there in 1964, but that total nearly doubled the next year. Along with the processors came large new storage facilities. Although the basin's long growing season made newly harvested potatoes available for processing from July through November, storage sheds with controlled temperature, humidity, and ventilation kept potatoes good for months, allowing processors to run year-round.

In 1967 J. R. Simplot (1909-2008) convinced McDonald's CEO Ray Kroc (1902-1984) that the burger chain, which then bought only fresh potatoes for fries, should rely on his company's frozen french fries. The Simplot Company became and remained McDonald's largest U.S. supplier of fries, and increasing quantities were made from Russet Burbanks grown, stored, processed, and frozen in the Columbia Basin. Simplot operated large processing plants in Othello and Moses Lake, and other processors developed facilities around the region.

Othello, in Adams County, was already a hub for processing other foods, especially sugar beets, but the sugar-beet plant closed in the late 1970s and potato processing and french-fry production became the primary industrial employment in Othello and the entire county. By the early twenty-first century, with McCain Foods also operating a large plant, some 10 percent of french fries consumed in the U.S. were processed in Othello. In neighboring Grant County food processing likewise became the largest industrial sector. Besides the Simplot plant in Moses Lake, ConAgra (later Lamb Weston) operated Grant County processing facilities in Warden and Quincy.

As processing capacity rose so did the state's potato harvest. Through the turn of the century, steady increases in both acres cultivated and per-acre yield boosted total annual production. Since then, growers in Washington have annually harvested some 160,000 acres yielding an average of more than 30 tons per acre -- twice the national average -- for a total crop approaching and sometimes surpassing 10 billion pounds.

Marketing, Research, and Technology

With more and more potatoes to sell, Washington growers and processors worked to expand the market for their products, increasingly looking overseas. In the 1950s, potato growers organized the Washington State Potato Commission, authorized by the legislature and overseen by the state agriculture department, to help market Washington potatoes around the world. At the time, few of the state's potatoes were exported but, with fast-food chains spreading globally, demand for french fries was rising. Frozen fries could easily be transported and Washington producers were well-positioned to serve growing demand from Asian countries.

The state's ports, the closest in the continental U.S. to Asia, had a long history of trade with the region and were soon shipping large quantities of Washington potato products across the Pacific. With marketing efforts ongoing, the percentage of Washington potatoes shipped overseas, mostly as frozen french fries, climbed to more than half the annual harvest. Japan was by far the top destination, receiving two-thirds of all Washington french-fry exports, followed in 2018 by China and South Korea. Producers also worked with the potato commission to increase market share within the U.S. In the 1980s, Washington packers successfully negotiated better freight rates with rail lines and other land-based carriers, helping boost shipping to markets around the country.

Along with marketing, the commission helped finance scientific research. One of its first acts was making a $50,000 grant to help fund a potato-research laboratory at Washington State College (later University). It currently provides more than $500,000 yearly in direct funding for research and advocates for additional state and federal support, working since 2012 in conjunction with the potato commissions of Idaho and Oregon through the Northwest Potato Research Consortium.

Researchers at WSU have long been in the forefront of potato research. Working with colleagues at the University of Idaho and Oregon State, breeders at WSU's Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser, Benton County, developed multiple new varieties particularly adapted to Northwest growing conditions and the needs of the processing industry. Many are russets, including the Ranger, Clearwater, and Umatilla varieties, designed to grow well in areas not as conducive to Russet Burbanks and for more uniformity of size and shape for easier processing. Those new varieties now represent a quarter of the Northwest's potato acreage, while acreage of Russet Burbanks dropped from close to 90 percent to less than half.

Research and development extended far beyond the crop itself. When irrigation water first reached the Columbia Basin it was pumped through ditches and distributed across fields with lines and tubes moved by hand or with reels. Then sprinkler irrigation, with huge circular frameworks of pipes and hoses with multiple sprinklers rotating around a center pivot, made watering easier and more efficient. Over the years nozzles were improved and located closer to the ground to reduce evaporation. As computer technology advanced, probes monitored soil moisture and each nozzle could be individually adjusted, further increasing efficiency. New technology transformed not just irrigation but every stage of raising potatoes, from planting with laser-guided planters to harvesting with tractors using GPS navigation and beyond, as advances in air-circulation systems improved storage time and capacity.

Variety, Adaptability, Resilience

Most Washington-grown potatoes are russet varieties destined for processing, but the crop encompasses a huge diversity of types and uses. The state potato commission identifies seven main categories: russet potatoes with brown skin and white flesh, red potatoes with red skin and white flesh, white potatoes with thin skin and white flesh, yellow potatoes with yellow/golden skin and flesh, purple/blue potatoes (both skin and flesh), fingerlings (fairly small narrow potatoes in various colors), and petite potatoes, "bite-sized versions of larger potato varieties" ("7 Categories ..."). Within and beyond these categories are a seemingly infinite number of specific varieties.

Most russets are grown east of the mountains, while Skagit Valley produces many of the state's red, white, yellow, and purple/blue potatoes. Across the state, growers focusing on the local market, including restaurants and farmers markets, offer a wide range of specialty potatoes. Among those are the Makah Ozette fingerling, which since its "rediscovery" in the 1980s has been championed by the Slow Food movement and leading Washington chefs. Also increasingly popular are varieties with deeply colored blue, purple, and even red flesh. While potatoes have long been known as good sources of vitamin C, potassium, and other nutrients, the WSU lab at Prosser discovered that they are also rich in antioxidants, with deeper color indicating higher antioxidant levels, and has worked to breed new deeply colored varieties.

Since 1987, when the state agriculture department first certified organic farms, an increasing percentage of the diverse potato crop has been raised organically. In 2018, Washington produced 27 percent of the nation's organic potatoes, even higher than the state's 20 percent share of the total U.S. potato harvest.

Farmers markets where growers sell organic and other specialty potatoes directly to consumers have also increased in recent decades. Seattle's Pike Place Market, which opened more than a century ago, has been joined since 1993 by a network of weekly neighborhood farmers markets around the city, and similar markets operate in other Puget Sound cities, Spokane, and elsewhere. Potato growers from as far away as the Olympic Peninsula to the west and Colville in Northeast Washington make the weekly drive to bring potatoes from their fields to Seattle-area farmers markets.

Although significant, the value of most varieties and specialty potatoes remains a small portion of Washington's overall crop, which altogether was worth $845 million in 2019, second only to apples. Processing added millions more, making potato products the state's most valuable land-based agricultural export. Reliance on processing and exports played a major role in expanding Washington's potato industry, but also made it particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe in 2020. By May, with 10 percent of the previous year's crop still in storage, international trade plummeting, and restaurants, bars, and sports venues where most french fries are consumed closed around the world, some growers were plowing under part of the new crop rather than continuing to spend money growing potatoes they couldn't sell. But they left later-maturing varieties in the ground in hope they could still be used. And Washington growers organized to give away a million pounds of stored potatoes to people around the state suffering from the pandemic-caused downturn. While COVID-19 posed enormous challenges, Washington potatoes and those who grow them had repeatedly demonstrated their adaptability and resilience in the 200-plus years since Northwest tribes first cultivated them.

Note: This article is part of Cultivating Washington, The History of Our State’s Food, Land, and People, which includes more agriculture-related content, videos, and curriculum.


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