Joe Marshall became known as “Idaho Potato King” because of his untiring efforts in improving the industry. He first came to Idaho in 1902. Over the years he was a careful overseer of all aspects of potato growing, harvesting, storage, marketing and shipping. He was always ready to pass on his expertise to other growers, and his reputation as a potato expert became widespread.
His concepts of seed potato quality were implemented by the University of Idaho in a foundation seed program. Seed growers in the high altitude seed producing areas of the state owe much to Marshall’s vision and understanding of the value of certified seed.
Men such as Marshall are given credit for establishing the principle that quality was an important factor in marketing Idaho potatoes. Marshall took great pride in his crop and insisted it be handled carefully and he put only merchandise of which he was proud in bags bearing his brand.
Other shippers soon followed suit when they realized that the introduction of the Russet Burbank had given the state of Idaho a unique product to sell, and quality began to be the watch word of Idaho potato shippers.
Another individual whose name is synonymous with potatoes is John (Jack) R. Simplot. Simplot has been in turn the largest fresh shipper of potatoes in the state, the largest grower of Idaho potatoes and the largest processor. His greatest contribution to the industry has been his immense capacity for innovation, pioneering, speculation and the absolute fearless assault of unknown frontiers in production and marketing.
He began building his potato empire in the 1930’s as a fresh shipper. He aggressively sought new customers and bought out competitors. In 1940 he was the largest single shipper of Idaho potatoes. He had thirty-two packing warehouses from American Falls to Jamison, Oregon, and in 1940 shipped 10,000 cars of Idaho potatoes to receivers all over the United States.
Simplot started a system with growers from whom he bought potatoes. He would buy certified seed and induce each one of his growers to purchase ten or more bags from him on credit. They were instructed to plant these ten bags of potatoes late in the season which caused the tubers to be small in size and relatively immature at harvest time. This lot of potatoes then, which had been grown from the certified seed and multiplied by one year’s growing, served as the seed for the next year’s crop. The practice, which Simplot developed, proved to be so superior to using “year out” seed that it became almost a universal practice in the potato growing areas of Idaho.
Simplot also discovered the value of chemical fertilizers one year when he purchased a car load of fertilizer to try as an experiment. A portion of the field was planted with the plant food as far as it went. When it ran out the rest of the field was planted without the benefit of the new product.
At harvest time the portion of the field where the fertilizer had been applied had a beautiful crop of potatoes. They were large, of good quality, good type, and the yield was heavy. Where the fertilizer supplied had run out “was where we ran out of potatoes” according to Simplot.
The fertilizer industry was in its infancy and supplies of nitrogen and phosphate fertilizer were difficult to obtain. This led Simplot to build his own fertilizer production plants which has become a large and lucrative division of his enterprises.
Simplot has also developed a wide system of dehydrated and frozen potato products. He has plants in many locations and markets all over the world.
In the early days of potato production the grower was also the marketer and shipper. Hauling was done by horse-drawn wagons to the railroad. Potato shipping warehouses began to spring up along the railroads to facilitate the process. Eventually the potato shipping business separated from the potato growing.