Famous…Oregon potatoes? Nah. Idaho stats show which state reigns spud supreme

As Oregon adopts potato as its state veggie, state officials have fun promoting Idaho’s most popular export

By: - July 24, 2023 1:31 pm

Potatoes are harvested and and sorted in Burley, Idaho. (Kirsten Strough /USDA)

Let’s make one thing clear: Idaho is the undisputed OG spud state.

And public officials say Idaho’s reputation as the potato state won’t fade — even if in June, the Oregon Legislature adopted a resolution to make the potato its state vegetable.

After the resolution passed, some Idahoans took to social media to share their response, including Idaho Gov. Brad Little, who said on Twitter that he would deploy the Big Idaho Potato Truck to “defend the honor” of Idaho potatoes.

Sam Eaton, the vice president of legal affairs at the Idaho Potato Commission, told the Idaho Capital Sun that the commission is determined to maintain Idaho’s world famous reputation for its quality potatoes.

“We’ve been tasked by Governor Little to defend our Famous Idaho Potatoes, and we take our responsibility seriously,” he said in an email. “In response to Oregon’s actions, we recently deployed our Big Idaho Potato Truck internationally into Canada to ensure Idaho remains world famous for its potatoes.”

Eaton said that “in all seriousness,” the Idaho Potato Commission partners with fellow potato-producing states, including Oregon, to advocate for the U.S. potato industry.

“We work very closely with our neighbors in Oregon and Washington to develop new, improved varieties of potatoes, including potatoes that are more resistant to drought, heat and disease,” he said.

While Idaho is no longer the only state with the potato emblem, Idaho potatoes played an important role in the state’s early economic development, and the state vegetable – designated as such in Idaho in 2002 – continues to play an important role in the world economy.

Even if Oregon is the fourth top grower of potatoes in the U.S., its potato sector does not match with Idaho’s potato power.

The potato past: A look into what became Idaho’s pride and identity

While today they are the No. 1 most consumed vegetable by U.S. consumers, potatoes did not originate from North America.

Potatoes are native to the South American Andes. Researchers believe they were transported to Europe in the 1500s, eventually making their way to the colonies in the 1600s.

Now a staple in the American diet, early U.S. potatoes weren’t immediately accepted into society until receiving an aristocratic seal of approval from former President Thomas Jefferson, who served them to guests at the White House. Only then did potatoes gain popularity.

Idaho’s reputation with potatoes began in the early 1900s, when russet potatoes began appearing throughout the state, according to the Idaho Potato Commission website. In 1937, the potato commission was founded as a state agency responsible for promoting and protecting the “Grown in Idaho” brand.

By the early years of World War II, Idaho-based J.R. Simplot Company became an important force in shipping millions of pounds of fresh potatoes across the country while also selling dehydrated onions and potatoes to the military.

Because wartime shortages made it difficult to access fertilizer, the company built a manufacturing plant in Pocatello to produce its own. And in the late 1940s, the Simplot Company was the first in the world to produce the first commercially viable frozen french fry.

This satellite image of southern Idaho shows the Snake River Plain, where most of the state’s potatoes are grown. NASA refers to this area as the “potato belt,” a belt of low-lying land that extends across southern Idaho (Earth Observatory, NASA).

Today, most of the state’s potatoes are grown in the Snake River Plain, or what NASA refers to as the “potato belt.” This region is a belt of low-lying land that extends across southern Idaho.

Since its early presence, state legislators have adopted measures for Idaho residents to promote their potato pride through “Famous Potatoes” license plates.

Economic impact of Idaho potatoes

Idaho potatoes play an important role in the national and global economy.

Today, the U.S. is the fifth largest global producer of potatoes, and Idaho is the top potato-producing state, producing nearly a third of U.S. potatoes, according to the Idaho Department of Agriculture.

According to the Idaho Potato Commission, about one in five potatoes grown in Idaho is exported, and top destinations for fresh Idaho potatoes include Canada, Mexico, Malaysia and Singapore.

Officials with the commission are also taking steps to add Japan to the list of top destinations for Idaho potatoes. A ban currently prevents farmers from exporting fresh potatoes to Japan. But after a trade mission to the country in June, state officials are optimistic that Idaho potatoes will make their way to the island country.

The U.S. potato sector is responsible for creating an estimated 714,000 jobs, contributing more than $100.9 billion to the country’s economy in 2021, according to the National Potato Council.

Top 10 potato-producing states (Source: Crop Production 2022 Summary, USDA)

  1. Idaho: 12 billion pounds
  2. Washington: 9 billion pounds
  3. Wisconsin: 2.8 billion pounds
  4. Oregon: 2.5 billion pounds
  5. North Dakota: 2.3 billion pounds
  6. Colorado: 2.1 billion pounds
  7. Minnesota: 2 billion pounds
  8. Maine: 1.8 billion pounds
  9. Michigan: 1.6 billion pounds
  10. California: 772 million pounds

According to the Idaho Potato Commission, Idaho is an ideal spot to grow potatoes because of the state’s volcanic soil, irrigation system and warm days and cool nights. Unlike some states, Idaho potatoes are usually available year-round.

While the Russet potato is Idaho’s most well-known product, it also grows more than 30 varieties of the crop such as Yukon golds, reds and fingerlings.

Where does Oregon stand in comparison to Idaho? 

Ranked the fourth top producer of potatoes in the country, Oregon has its fair share of the vegetable. Just not as much as Idaho.

In 2021, Idaho potato crops totaled $1 billion in sales while Oregon’s potato crop was valued at $218 million, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Data from the Department of Agriculture also shows that Idaho potatoes planted in 2022 totaled 295,000 acres, while 43,000 acres of potatoes were planted in Oregon.

There are about 500 farms in Idaho, and Bingham County alone planted over 61,000 acres of potatoes this year, Eaton told the Sun.

On the other hand, there are about 370 potato farms in Oregon, making potatoes the state’s eighth-most valuable crop, according to Agriculture in the Classroom, an Oregon-based educational nonprofit.

Most of Oregon’s potatoes are also sold for processing purposes. Nearly 80% of Oregon potatoes are used to process frozen or dehydrated products, while only 60% of the potatoes from Idaho are processed with the remaining sold as fresh potatoes.

While Oregon does not produce as many potatoes as Idaho, the Beaver State does have one claim to fame.

Tater tots, the deep-fried, cylinder-shaped snack, were invented in Oregon by F. Nephi Grigg – an Idaho native. In 1951, the entrepreneur acquired a bankrupt company in Ontario that is now known as Ore-Ida and began selling frozen potatoes, Deseret News reported.

Oregon Republican Sen. Bill Hansell, a sponsor of the resolution, said that no other state can claim the tater tot as its own, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting.

In a letter to the Legislature in support of making the potato Oregon’s state vegetable, Hansell said designating it as a state emblem recognizes the contributions of farmers.

“Oregon potato farmers are also valuable and committed members of their communities, and farmers annually donate one million pounds of potatoes to the Oregon Food Bank,” he said in the letter. “It goes without saying that potatoes are important to Oregon’s economy, our communities, and our food production.”

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Mia Maldonado
Mia Maldonado

Mia Maldonado joined the Idaho Capital Sun after working as a breaking news reporter at the Idaho Statesman covering stories related to crime, education, growth and politics.