It's easy to take the humble potato for granted. But anyone who has had the opportunity to participate in one of the harvest tours sponsored by the Idaho Potato Commission comes away with a greater appreciation for what goes into producing quality Idaho potatoes and getting them to market, and a realization that there is far more to it than planting the seeds in the spring, digging the potatoes in the fall, and putting them in a box.
Idaho potato grower James Hoff, a commissioner with the IPC, welcomes tour participants. Pictured with Hoff are Jeff Kebberly of Atlantic Foods and Stanley Trout, IPC regional promotions director. In the background is one of Hoff’s vintage aircraft, a biplane similar to the one he flew in the commission’s 2014 television commercial.
Michael Brown of Sysco and Bruce Crapo, owner of Sun-Glo of Idaho during a tour of the Sun-Glo facility.
Armand Lobato, IPC regional promotions director, Gabriel Chavez of PFG, Jaqueline Pearson of US Foods and Bruce Crapo, owner of Sun-Glo of Idaho.
Foodservice buyers from across the country were hosted by the Idaho Potato Commission on a tour of Idaho potato farms, packinghouses, and a processing plant during the 2017 harvest. Here, tour participants pose for a photo during the welcoming reception in front of a private airplane hangar at Hoff Farms.
Robots stacking pallets in the Sun-Glo packing facility.
Lynn Wilcox, chief executive officer of Wilcox Fresh and chairman of the Idaho Potato Commission, talks to David John of General Produce and Grover Whittington of Sysco about the 2017 potato harvest.
Grover Whittington of Sysco examines potatoes on a Wilcox farm that have been dug and laid on top of the ground by a four-row potato digging machine.
A potato harvester in a Wilcox Fresh field separates potatoes from the soil land conveys them into a truck, which will transport them either directly to a packinghouse or to a storage facility.
Unloading freshly harvested potatoes at a Rigby Produce storage facility. Various equipment is used to remove anything that is not a potato, including rocks, vines and soil, before the potatoes are put in storage.
Jacqueline Pearson of US Foods, Scott Mickelson of Rigby Produce and Dustin Bagnaro of US Foods in the Rigby Produce packinghouse.
Scott Mickelson of Rigby Produce with David John of General Produce discuss the operation of Rigby’s carton packingline.
Workers in the Rigby Produce packinghouse on a line that shrink wraps and labels individual microwavable potatoes.
Brian Wada, chief executive officer of Wada Farms, welcomes tour participants. In the background are four large potato storage facilities that have been built close to the packinghouse for use in winter when extreme cold makes transport from more distant storages risky.
Armand Lobato, IPC regional promotions director, displays heart-shaped potato he spotted as a truck unloads freshly harvested russets onto a conveyor belt.
Brian Wada, chief executive officer of Wada Farms, talks to tour participants about the specialty potato packingline.
A mesh bagging machine in the Wada facility.
Filling a massive potato storage facility at Tiede Farms with newly harvested russets.
Joe Navarro of Sysco and Jim Tiede of Tiede Farms.
Twelve-row crossover potato harvesting on Tiede Farm. Approaching are two digging machines, running side-by-side four rows apart, each digging up potatoes from four rows and laying them on top of the rows between them. A four-row harvester (the red machine in the center of the photo) will follow behind, pick up the potatoes on top of the ground, dig up the potatoes in the remaining four rows, and convey the potatoes from all 12 rows into trucks. While one truck is being filled, another waits to take its place.
Foodservice buyers examine rows of freshly dug potatoes that a digging machine has laid on top of the ground awaiting the harvester.
Darrel Koyle, plant manager and vice president of operations at Sun Valley Produce, explains to Brice Fifac of Sysco some of the particulars of the plant’s sophisticated electronic technology. Also pictured is Joe Navarro of Sysco.
A large holding bin of sized and sorted russet potatoes in the Sun Valley packinghouse.
Potatoes emerge from an optical sorter-sizer at Sun Valley Produce.
Richard Cotton, plant manager at Mart Produce.
In the Mart Produce packing facility, cleaned and sorted potatoes emerge from large holding bins onto conveyor belts, which will take them through the packingline.
Sophisticated electronics notwithstanding, potatoes at Mart Produce are also scrutinized by human eyes before going into bags or cartons.
Over the years, the Idaho Potato Commission has hosted harvest tours for various groups from food writers and bloggers to retailers, foodservice professionals and chefs. The IPC conducts these tours on the conviction that the opportunity to see first-hand the harvesting, storage, grading, packing and processing of Idaho potatoes, to meet the growers and shippers, and to witness their passion for delivering to their customers the finest product possible, will build loyalty to the Idaho brand in tour participants.
The commission's experience with past tours has validated that conviction. Moreover, as Don Odiorne, vice president of foodservice for the commission, has observed, many participants actually become brand advocates for Idaho potatoes.
This year, nearly 30 foodservice professionals, representing foodservice distributors across the country, joined Odiorne, the commission's regional foodservice promotion directors and IPC Marketing Director Jamie Bowen in a tour of Idaho potato fields, storages and packing facilities, as well as a dehydrated potato processing plant, at the peak of the harvest. It is, to date, the largest group the IPC has brought to Idaho for a harvest tour.
Odiorne explained to The Produce News how the participants were chosen. "We ran a bonus promotion this year in March, and the idea behind it was that if people had an increase in sales of 10 percent, they could qualify for a drawing that we had." Those selected by the random drawing were invited "to come out to Idaho the end of September for a harvest tour."
Meeting growers and shippers face-to-face and witnessing first hand the harvesting and packing processes, including the sophisticated technology employed in the industry today, "gives those potato buyers a good overview of what the industry is about," Odiorne said. "So when they are making their [purchasing] decisions and there is a few cents difference in price," their experience in Idaho will motivate them to decide in favor of Idaho potatoes. Also, if "there is a problem" with an order, having had the opportunity to get to know the growers and shippers, they are more likely "to try to work with people and get it solved. Our hope is it will improve the communication lines and loyalty," he said.
In addition, tour participants have the opportunity of seeing "the unique beauty that is Idaho" and discovering that there is more to the state than "sagebrush, dirt and desert," said Odiorne.
Participants were also exposed to the unique Idaho environment that contributes to the industry's success as a potato growing region, as described on the IPC website: "Idaho's growing season of warm days and cool nights, ample mountain-fed irrigation and rich volcanic soil give Idaho potatoes their unique texture, taste and dependable performance, that differentiates Idaho¿ potatoes from potatoes grown in other states." Weather was ideal for the tour and for the harvest that was in progress.
The tour began the evening of Sept. 26 with a welcome reception and dinner in a private airplane hangar on the Hoff Farms in Idaho Falls, ID. James Hoff, an IPC commissioner, is a fourth-generation Idaho potato farmer. The family has been growing potatoes "over 100 years on this farm," said Hoff, whose father and daughter are also involved in the business. All three are also pilots. The farm grows 240 acres of russet potatoes for GPOD of Idaho.
Hoff and one of his several antique airplanes, a╩1943 Boeing Stearman biplane, was featured in the Idaho Potato Commission's 2014 national television ad, with Hoff flying Idaho potato farmer Mark Coombs around the country in search of the "missing" Big Idaho Potato Truck.
Over the next two days, tour participants visited the Idahoan dehy plant in Lewisville as well as five state-of-the-art packing facilities (Wada Farms in Pingree, Mart Produce in Rupert, Sun Valley Produce in Rupert, Sun-Glo in Sugar City and Rigby Produce in Rigby) and two farms (Wilcox Fresh in Rexburg and Tiede Farm in American Falls) where the russet potato harvest was in full swing.
At the Wilcox operation, the Russet Burbank harvest was under way. Lynn Wilcox, president of Wilcox Fresh and current chairman if IPC, said he expects an average size profile on the Burbanks this year, with a slightly smaller overall yield than last year.
The tour did not visit the Wilcox packing facility, which was currently undergoing extensive renovation, incorporating the latest in sizing, grading and sorting technology as well as labor-saving automation. It was expected to go online around the second week of October.
At Jim Tiede Farms, participants witnessed 12-row cross-over harvesting of Russet Burbank potatoes in which two machines each dig four rows of potatoes and lay them atop the four un-dug rows between the machines; then a four-row harvester picks ups the potatoes that are on top of the ground, as well as those in the rows still in the ground beneath them, separates them from the soil and conveys them into a truck.
The Tiede family has been farming potatoes in Idaho for 108 years. The farm currently produces 850 acres of potatoes, half for Simplot and half for Lamb Weston, Jim Tiede said.
Sun-Glo of Idaho Inc. was established in 1975 by five growers and has been solely owned by the Crapo family since 1999. The Crapo family has been involved with Idaho potatoes for four generations. Today, the company runs around 250 million pounds of potatoes each year through the facility including reds and golds as well as russets.
At Rigby Produce, Scott Mickelson, business manager, said that the company grows about 9,500 acres of potatoes and produces 70-75 percent of the potatoes they run through the facility. They run about 2 million pounds of potatoes a day and is heavy to foodservice, shipping Norkotahs most of the year
Kevin Stanger, president of Wada Farms, said that the company farms 30,000 acres. In addition to russets, it now farms 2,000 acres of red and yellow potatoes, which are packed on a separate line.
Brian Wada, chief executive officer of Wada Farms, said that the packing facility places a strong emphasis on food safety and sanitation even though potatoes are an essentially safe product.
"Are we going to have less problems than the other guys?" he asked. "No, because none of us are going to have any."
At the Mart Produce, which a competitor described as possibly the most technologically advanced potato packing facility in the state, plant manager Richard Cotton said that the company is owned by four growers who produce 80 percent of the volume the company runs. The company has been in business since 1980, and "this plant was built five years ago," he said. Typically, Mart Produce will load "as many as 40 reefers [refrigerated semi-trucks] a day."
The Sun Valley plant was originally built in 1984, and the company has been a co-op since the early 1990s, according to Darrell Koyle, plant manager and vice president of operations. The co-ops 19 grower-owners produce 3 million "sacks" [hundredweight] of potatoes.
As a bonus, the tour group made a brief stop at the Idaho Potato Museum in Blackfoot.