When white men first came to Idaho to farm, the heavy work of soil preparation, planting, cultivation and harvesting was done by the muscle power of men and horses. Women also helped out in the fields, but there was usually plenty of hard work to do around the farm house as well.
The internal combustion engine produced the first technological revolution in the Idaho potato industry. Gasoline-powered farm tractors and motor trucks made their appearance about the same time in the early 1920’s. Horses continued to play an important role for some time and teams were used for hauling after they had been replaced by the tractor for the heavy work of plowing, cultivation and digging potatoes. Potato diggers were slow to improve. They were designed primarily to unearth the potatoes and leave them exposed on top of the ground, to be picked by hand and put in field bags. Harvesttime required many hands and people who did not do field work any other time of year were recruited to pick potatoes in the annual September-October race against the freeze-up. The pickers filled their field bags about half-full and they were loaded on wagons to be hauled from the fields and dumped in potato cellars.
As harvest labor became harder to get, machinery designers began to improve diggers. The use of chain link conveyors to separate field dirt from potatoes soon led to a more complex machine that elevated the potatoes in bulk to the height of a potato truck and eliminated hand picking and field bags. Space was provided on some harvesters for people to stand so they could remove vines, trash, clods of soil and field stones.
A major breakthrough was the development of sprinkler irrigation. The facts are not available as to who did the first irrigation with sprinklers in Idaho, but by the late 1940s the trend had begun. A major factor was the development of light-aluminum sprinkler pipe that could be moved from one part of the field to another. These are called handlines. One of the big advantages of sprinkling is that it was no longer necessary to have flat ground. The system adapted to the gently rolling hills of much of Idaho’s unreclaimed desert areas and made possible the additions of thousands of new acres of potato ground. Pumps were used to create the pressure for sprinkling and were usually powered by an electric motor or an internal combustion engine. At first the water was pumped from irrigation ditches.
Sprinkler potatoes proved to be of more uniform quality because soil moisture and soil temperature could be controlled with greater accuracy. Sprinklers worked better on light soils and their use greatly reduced irrigation runoff which carried silt and other undesirable substances back into rivers.
Agricultural chemicals have also contributed greatly to the technological revolution of the potato industry. The availability and use of chemical fertilizers alone has increased yields and quality of potatoes greatly. Insecticides, herbicides and fungicides have given the grower new weapons to fight insects, weeds and disease.
Another technological advancement that has contributed greatly to the Idaho potato industry is the mechanically refrigerated railroad car and semi-trailers. The freight car that is charged with liquid carbon dioxide can keep a load frozen solid for periods as long as 14 to 16 days if necessary. This makes it possible for huge quantities of frozen potatoes to be shipped all over the country.
The development of computers has impacted the agricultural industry. A computerized system called Automatic Defect Removal has enabled potato processors to eliminate most of the hand labor of trimming defects from potatoes that are to become french fries and other processed products.
Use of automated controls on nearly every phase of processing has likewise accomplished savings in labor cost and tightened tolerances for higher quality.
Computers have steadily increased their usefulness to fresh shippers in optical sizing and grading functions. Machines that fill consumer-size bags now depend on electronic brains to get the weight of the contents exact without underweights and a minimum of overweights.
The potato industry is ever evolving to produce the world with the finest potatoes in the world.