Potatoes: They're dependable. No matter what the time of year, you can be sure the grocery store will have potatoes for baking or French fry–making. Yet because they are always available, we tend to take the humble spud for granted.
Ever consider where those potatoes you mash come from? Chances are they hail from Idaho, the nation's leading potato producer (Washington comes in at number two). Potatoes large and small are big business in Idaho, so I headed west to investigate (and eat America's favorite vegetable close to where it grew).
Perhaps the most amazing thing about the potato is that it's a keeper. Safe in the root cellar, potatoes and other root vegetables kept our great grandparents going through the winter. Even without a root cellar, if they are stored at 45-50°F potatoes will keep for several weeks. The average kitchen is a bit warm for optimum potato storage but kept in a cool area away from light (and never in the refrigerator), potatoes will keep for at least a week. And those potatoes you buy at the market, they might have been harvested several months ago, and that's fine.
Potatoes are harvested in the early fall (in Idaho it's late September-mid October generally). As with many other crops, farmers have to balance getting as long a growing season as possible against the threat of a crop-damaging frost or snow. If the weather is too cold when potatoes are harvested, farmer Wes Crapo of Crapo Farms explains, they bruise easily or can even shatter like glass. That means farmers might not start work until the ground has warmed up to 38°F, but the harvest days run long and work can go on until 10 p.m. These days the harvest is largely mechanized and there is an enormous amount of potatoes to bring in.
After harvesting, potatoes are stored in large, temperature- and humidity-controlled warehouses. Agricultural scientists at the University of Idaho have been working to perfect this storage for years. Airflow systems keep the 20-foot-deep potato mounds from rotting. Think of it as a giant, high-tech version of Great Grandma's root cellar.
Potatoes are natural wonders. When they are pulled out of the fields, harvesting machinery can rough them up a bit. If they are properly stored, though, potatoes can heal their bruises and cuts within two weeks and are like new. And they can stay fresh in the warehouses for up to 11 months before they are trucked off to packaging plants and then to the grocery store.
While they may not be glamorous like some other fickle produce (we're looking at you, delicate greens and squishable tomatoes), potatoes are versatile, and they've been there for you over the years through all those fries and gratins.