Grub Americana

Potatoes: America’s Leading Vegetable Crop

Colorful potato varieties.

There is probably no one I know who likes potatoes more than me. In fact, I have yet to find a way of preparing them that I don’t enjoy—baked, broiled, fried, stewed, au gratin, scalloped, hash browns, or potato salad. You make ‘em, I’ll eat ‘em. I’ve even been known to peel and eat them raw with a sprinkle of salt like an apple, a way some nutritionist think has better health benefits than cooked potatoes.

Potatoes fall into three basic categories—starchy, waxy, and all-purpose. My favorite has always been the all-purpose Burbank russet from Idaho followed by small Red Bliss potatoes, but over the years I’ve learned to enjoy other varieties, including Yukon Golds, fingerlings and creamers in white, red, and purple. I’ve also learned to like potatoes grown in other states like North Dakota, Colorado, and Washington (there is a difference).

Grown commercially in thirty states, potatoes are the leading vegetable crop in the United States, with Idaho producing the most by far. Other major state growers include Washington, North Dakota, Wisconsin, and Colorado.

Potatoes also represent the world’s fifth most important crop, after wheat, corn, rice, and sugar cane. Worldwide potato production is led by China, followed by India, Russia, and Ukraine. The U.S. comes in fifth.

potatoesThe potato we know is thought to have originated some 10,000 years ago in an area covering southern Peru and northwestern Bolivia. The earliest actual archaeological verification was potato tuber remains found in the coastal area of Ancon in central Peru dating to 2500 BC. This, along with other evidence such as stone tools used for potato cultivation and processing, as well as pottery whose design is influenced by the potato, demonstrate it being an integral part of Peruvian life.

Potatoes arrived in Europe in the late 16th century, brought first by Spanish Conquistadors around 1570, then later by English explorers between 1588 and 1593. From there potatoes made their way to France and Ireland. They were slow to gain acceptance for a number of unsubstantiated reasons ranging from causing leprosy to creating promiscuous behavior to being considered too ugly. In fact, it took nearly 40 years for the potato to spread across Europe.

The first potatoes brought to the new Americas came by way of a gift to the governor of the Virginia colony in the 1620s from the Governor of the Bahamas. But like Europe the potato was not immediately accepted as a food stuff, but instead was used to feed horses and livestock. It took Thomas Jefferson serving French fries to White House guests for the potato to gain the “aristocratic seal” needed to kick-start interest by the rest of the colonies. Finally with the steady stream of Irish immigrants to the U.S., potatoes really began to catch on.

tomtatoThere are more than 4,000 varieties of native potatoes in a wide range of shapes and sizes, most of which are found in the Andes mountains in South America. Additionally there are over 140 known wild species, too bitter for consumption.

Potatoes are propagated in two ways. By planting what is referred to as a “seed,” a piece of potato with one or two “eyes,” will grow 5 to 20 new tubers that are exact clones of the mother plant. The other way is to plant the flowers/berries of a potato plant which results in new tubers genetically different from the mother plant.

Today there are more than 200 varieties of potatoes sold in the U.S. Each variety fits into one of the seven potato categories—russet, red, white, yellow, blue/purple, fingerling, and petite.

Last year U.S. potato production was 392,243 million cwt, or some 17,500 million cwt less than 2021. In fact, potato production in this country has steadily decreased every year since 2017 by approximately 20 million cwt annually, and no one seems to agree on why. Of course Idaho growers account for almost 33% of total U.S.production, more than Wisconsin, Oregon, North Dakota, and Colorado combined. Washington came in as a strong second.

russetHave you ever wondered what happens to all of the potatoes grown in this country? Well only about 25% are used as fresh potatoes in homes and restaurants. About 15% are used to make chips, shoestring potatoes and snacks, while another 10% go to make dehydrated potato pearls and instant potatoes. Frozen French fries account for 38%, and another 3% miscellaneous frozen products, such as hash browns, cottage fries, etc. Then there’s another 2% for miscellaneous canned products such as stews, soups, and corned beef hash. Finally about 5% of each annual crop is set aside for seeding the next years crop.

Then there is the export of some 2 billion pounds of potatoes and potato products annually to primarily Japan, Canada, Mexico and South Korea. And let’s not forget the imports weighing in at more than 3.5 billion pounds, primarily from Canada (no that’s not a typo).

Well folks, that’s my potato story. I hope you enjoyed reading about them, as much as I did writing about them. That said, I think I’ll just mosey out to the kitchen and throw a big old spud in the oven to enjoy with supper. But before I go, here are some fun facts about the potato.