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You Say Potato

Often associated with Europe, the humble potato is a product of the New World. And though its origins are in South and Central America, it is ideally suited to the climates of the northern United States and Canada.

The vast majority of the U.S. potato production—nearly 90 percent—is in the fall, with winter, spring, and summer combined accounting for the rest. Although many states grow potatoes seasonally, Idaho and Washington are the nation’s top growers, in terms of both acreage and total production. The rest of the U.S. top ten by production, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are Wisconsin, North Dakota, Colorado, Oregon, Minnesota, Michigan, California, and Maine. North of the border, most Canadian provinces have the right climate for potatoes, with Manitoba and Prince Edward Island in the Maritimes sporting an excellent reputation for spuds.

With potatoes ever more in demand both domestically and internationally—including both fresh and processed (into fries, chips, frozen foods, and dozens of other permutations)—it’s a good time to be a potato grower.

The West
The Pacific Northwest, with its frequent rainfall, nutrient-heavy volcanic soil, and warm days balanced by cool nights, is America’s perfect climatological region for potato growing. When a state’s license plates trumpet this “famous” crop, you know potatoes are firmly ingrained in daily life—this is definitely true for Idaho, the nation’s leading producer of tasty tubers.

Nearly 400,000 acres are dedicated to potato growing in Idaho with a yield value of over $983 million in 2012. Some 60 percent of the state’s production goes to French fries alone. Though its climate makes it ideal to be the kingdom of the potato, Idaho growers do face challenges, including nailing down a reliable workforce, facing foreign competition (China and India are now the world’s leading producers of potatoes), and water.

Since Idaho recently suffered through a moderate to severe drought, Travis Blacker of the Idaho Potato Commission said, “We’re hoping for a good winter with lots of snowpack in the mountains to fill up our reservoirs.”

But while Idaho potatoes are known all over the world, Washington, its neighbor to the west, is right on its heels. With a similar climate and a perfect environment for harvesting in the cool, loamy Cascade Mountains region, Washington produced a crop worth $771 million last year. If added together, Idaho and Washington outgrow every other potato-producing state in the United States combined.