By Rachel Bertone for Growing Oregon magazine
The history of potatoes in Oregon is as deeply rooted as the rich soil the spuds grow in.
The crop dates back to the early 1800s, when the first explorers ventured into the Pacific Northwest. The fertile land provided the perfect growing environment, and potatoes have been an important part of the state’s agriculture industry and economy ever since.
In 2013, Oregon farmers harvested more than 41,667 acres of potatoes, yielding more than 53,000 pounds per acre. More than 2.3 billion pounds were harvested across the state in 2013, contributing $170.5 million to Oregon’s economy and making the crop the seventh highest value commodity in the state’s agriculture sector.
About 25 percent of Oregon potatoes are sold fresh. The remaining are processed into food products, including frozen French fries for quick-serve restaurants, hash browns, chips, dehydrated flakes and Tater Tots. According to the Oregon Potato Commission, up to 15 percent of these products are exported to foreign markets, including Japan, Taiwan, Korea, the Philippines, Mexico and South America.
Oregon potato processors played key roles in innovating production of two potato staples – French fries and Tater Tots. In the Oregon border town of Ontario, Ore-Ida founders Nephi and Golden Grigg got the patent for the Tater Tot in 1953. In 1960, Gilbert Lamb boosted the speed of cutting potatoes for French fries with his Lamb Water Gun Knife – think of it as using extreme water pressure to shoot potatoes at steel blades at 117 feet per second.
“Oregon potatoes account for more value-added production than any other crop grown in the state,” says Dan Chin, owner of Chin Family Farms and Wong Potatoes Inc. This results in marketing over $250 million of fresh and processed potatoes each year.
Chin Family Farms grows 5,000 acres of potatoes, onions, wheat, barley and alfalfa hay. He is a third-generation potato farmer in the Klamath Basin, which is ideal for growing high-quality potatoes because of its elevation and short growing season. Chin raises 16 different varieties of red, yellow, russet, purple, white and fingerling potatoes for local sales and exporting. In addition to the farming operation, Wong Potatoes Inc., packs and ships 70 million pounds of potatoes each year.
Potatoes are rich in nutrients. The largest and most affordable source of potassium in the produce department, they provide 45 percent of daily vitamin C and 10 percent of B6. A medium potato is 110 calories.
Another Consumer Favorite
Potatoes aren’t the only product playing an important role in the state’s agriculture industry. Oregon growers produce some of the nation’s best onions, including the trademarked Crown Classic marketed by Northwest Onion Co. Total Oregon onion production ranks eighth in the state’s top agricultural commodities and contributes $143 million.
Reid Saito grew up weeding crops on his family farm, just as his children would years later. Today, Saito and his wife, Kaylene, farm 1,000 acres of row crops in Nyssa including onions, potatoes and sugar beets. He and other growers established Muir-Roberts onion packing facility in 1999.
“The advantages we have here in the Treasure Valley are our climate and soil,” Saito says. “We have warm days and cooler nights, and that helps tremendously with growing onions.”
Saito also says in most years the region offers a dependable supply of water, thanks to an irrigation system of canals and storage.
“The most important thing is that we have a good knowledge base and history of growing onions in the valley,” says the third-generation farmer.
Oregon is known for quality onions ranging from the sharp, full-flavored yellow Danver to the mild, sweet Spanish varieties. Rich soils formed from ancient river bottoms and lakes create the fertile fields that yield these unparalleled storage onions.
On his KLG Farms, Saito grows big, yellow, sweet Spanish onions, along with a smaller crop of red onions. White onions are also grown in the region.
“Our onions are versatile,” he says. “They taste great raw on a sandwich or hamburger and they are the best onion available for cooking because they keep their flavor and desired crispness.”
Home to Largest Producer
The Eastern Oregon-Idaho onion industry is one of the largest producers of summer storage onions in the country, with approximately 24 percent market share in the national value of production. In 2013, 1.4 billion pounds of onions were harvested from 19,800 acres in this region.
Located nearly 200 miles northwest of the Treasure Valley region, River Point Farms in Hermiston is the largest onion producer in the United States, growing 450 million pounds of onions each year. CEO Bob Hale says River Point utilizes sustainable growing, including conservative irrigation systems and solar technology, and distributes its fresh-cut, quality onions to national brands, including FritoLay, Subway and Whataburger.
And the industry is continuing to grow each year. “With new technologies making farming more efficient with lower inputs and higher yields, this industry is only going to continue to flourish,” Hale says.