The first potatoes grown in Idaho were planted in northern Idaho by Rev. Henry Spaulding. It was a successful crop but his missionary work was brought to an end by the Whitman massacre and the Spauldings were forced to leave in 1850.
Potatoes again made their way to Idaho by way of Utah. Pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley on July 22, 1847. On July 24 a five-acre potato patch was plowed and seed potatoes planted. The first irrigation in Salt Lake Valley was for the benefit of the newly planted potatoes. A week later the potatoes were growing.
Certain pioneers were sent northward from Salt Lake to settle other areas. One of these areas was Cache Valley. Some, thinking they were still in Utah, had actually crossed the border into Idaho and began to establish their farms there. One of these early settlers in what now is Franklin County was William Goforth Nelson. He recorded in the summer of 1860: “We all camped in our wagons the first summer, but we all got homes built by winter; these houses were built in the present meetinghouse lot in a fort. I spent the summer working on ditches, canton roads, and hauling poles and wood from the canyon. I raised thirty-three bushels of potatoes, which is all that was raised in Franklin that summer except for a few onions.”
This is the first recorded planting of potatoes in Idaho in an area where the settlers remained and the crop is still grown to some extent today. The planting was accomplished three years before the Idaho Territory was organized.
The spread of potato agriculture in eastern Idaho was only a short matter of time. Records show that potatoes were introduced to Blackfoot through Henry E. Jenkins, a freighter hauling a load of potatoes from Farmington, Utah, to Blackfoot, Idaho. The recipient of the shipment was Judge Stephens, who was encouraged by the freighter to plant the potatoes. This is believed to be the first potato planting in the Blackfoot area. Judge Stephens’ successful crop encouraged more and more potatoes to be planted. Today the Blackfoot area has grown into one of the principal potato producing areas in Idaho.
Those first Idaho settlers were pioneers mentally as well as geographically because they had the initiative and willingness to better their conditions regardless of physical hardships and uncertain futures.
In the river valleys, where water was easily diverted, and with the rich volcanic-ash soil, these hearty people raised a few more potatoes than they needed and found that the extra potatoes resulted in a good cash crop. From this small beginning, Idaho’s farmers became leaders in the potato industry and are the top producers of potatoes in the United States.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates for the state of Idaho were first made in 1882 and they recorded 2,000 acres harvested. Total value of the potato market in Idaho that first year was $250,000. In 1904 there were 17,000 acres harvested for $1,328,000. In 1915 more than three million dollars was realized from 33,000 acres. Production had grown to 16,146,000 hundredweight by 1930 and Idaho potatoes were gaining their national reputation for baking quality and the higher grading standards of Idaho shippers.