At this point in your life you’ve probably figured out that fresh fruit and vegetables don’t just miraculously wind up at the grocery store. So you’ve probably wondered at least once – where do potatoes come from?
Whether it’s a simple potato for baking or an end product like your favorite french fries or potato chips – a lot of hard work, perfect timing, and incredible technology plays a part in getting Idaho’s most notable export onto the shelves of your local supermarket or in your favorite restaurants.
On a recent visit to southern Idaho, I set out to learn as much as I could about the state’s most popular export. My first mission was to visit a potato farm. Unfortunately, it turned out that I was traveling through Idaho at the wrong time of the year and all I saw was a whole lot of dirt. The next option was to visit an actual potato processing plant. These types of places aren’t usually open to the general public but I was able to get in touch with just the right people to make it happen.
That brings me to the town of Rupert, Idaho. It’s a 45 minute drive to the east of Twin Falls and a wonderful little community that screams “small town U.S.A.” at every turn. Standing in the middle of the town square, you can see the local water tower, a beautiful historic theater, and a really cool marquee above The Drift Inn – a popular spot for lunch. (I tried “finger steak” here for the first time – and loved it.)
A short drive from downtown is Mart Produce, one of several food production facilities that call Rupert home. I was graciously welcomed by CEO and President Julian Critchfield who answered every potato related question I could think of before we began a tour of the operation. Little did I know that my mind was about to be completely blown.
The first thing I saw was a large truck dumping at least a dozen potatoes per second onto a nearby conveyer belt. These belts play a vital role in the production process – and they are everywhere! Once we walked into the building and up some stairs, I had a birds-eye view of one of the most incredible layouts I’ve ever seen. Everywhere your eyes gazed, thousands of potatoes were moving in every direction. It was almost overwhelming to watch. But, it all starts to make sense when you consider the fact that Mart Produce ships out a whopping 26 semi-truck loads of potatoes every single day.
As the potatoes work their way around the building they are washed, weighed and singled out if they don’t meet strict standards for selling. We stood above a section of conveyer belts that were equipped with high-tech cameras that photograph each potato several times in under a second. The camera can tell if the potato’s shape and weight meets government regulations for general sale to the public. If not, the potato is “kicked” onto a separate conveyer belt – a process that happens so fast that it’s insane to watch.
So where do the other potatoes go? They’re definitely not tossed out. If they don’t meet specific, mostly aesthetic requirements for sale to grocery stores, they’re used for actual products – like McDonald’s french fries or Pringles potato chips. Generally speaking – almost nothing here goes to waste. The entire process is largely robotic but human hands play an important role as well. Employees do extra checks on each potato and help with the packing and shipping process.
(You can watch some of the technology at work in this quick video I shot during my tour.)
The final jaw-dropping moment comes after a glimpse into one of the company’s storage units. Unearthed potatoes can be safely stored for a considerable amount of time if the conditions are right – low light, cool temperatures, etc. These “bins” can hold millions of pounds of potatoes at once and to see them full is nothing short of spectacular.
Thank you to the good folks of Rupert, Idaho for giving me such a nice welcome and the chance to see this technology up close and in person. We’re all grateful that people in your town are working hard to keep food on our tables!