A Gamble: Potatoes in the Basin

Posted in Potato on Friday, September 09, 2022

A Gamble: Potatoes in the Basin

The history of Grant County’s record-setting potatoes.

Within his first 100 days in office, President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted legislation that forever changed the Columbia Basin and set the stage for Grant County to become the top potato-producing county in the nation. Roosevelt’s New Deal program in the 1930s tackled banking and economic reforms to end the Depression and funded public works projects. One such project was construction of the Grand Coulee Dam. The dam would become part of the Columbia Basin Project, an irrigation system providing water from the Columbia River to around 670,000 acres in east-central Washington. When Columbia River irrigation water began flowing to Grant County and the Moses Lake area, so, too, came a flow of settlers. And while the influx of water and people marked a pivotal moment, the area already held a deep history of harvest and hardship.

Before European Settlement 

Long before white settlement, mid-Columbia tribes gathered on the shores of Moses Lake to harvest camas roots, collect waterfowl eggs, reunite with family, and trade. This included the seminomadic Sinkiuse-Columbia people and their leader, Quetalican, later known as Chief Moses (1829-1899). Chief Moses, for whom Moses Lake and Moses Coulee are named, and the Sinkiuse-Columbia began encountering more settlers in the late 1800s as railroad development brought in waves of people. Settlers disrupted tribal expeditions and eventually drove them off their traditional grounds. 

The Gamble 

Despite harsh dryland conditions and dust storms, settlers put their hopes and money into livestock, orchards, carp seining and even a cheese factory. But these and other enterprises withered in the face of severe drought and the Great Depression. By 1930, Grant County’s population had dropped by more than 30 percent. President Roosevelt wanted to revitalize stricken agricultural communities, such as those in Grant County. With funding from the New Deal, the Grand Coulee Dam was constructed between 1934-1942.

The government began selling farm parcels in anticipation of an irrigated era in Washington’s Columbia Basin. Preference was given to World War II veterans, and many took the opportunity to transition from military life to farm life. As irrigation water began pumping from Grand Coulee Dam in 1948, veterans and other settlers poured in, making Grant County the fastest growing county in Washington during the 1950s. Potato growers and processors were among the operations that took hold in the following years. Not all would succeed, but those that made it to the 1960s saw a boost in demand with the expansion of fast food and American fervor for french fries. In fact, in 1965, McDonald’s CEO, Ray Kroc, visited potato farms and processors in east-central Washington. The next year, McDonald’s began using frozen potatoes—many of which were grown and processed in Grant County—for their famous french fries. Demand for fresh and processed potato products from Washington remains high today. There’s much more to the story, but that’s a glimpse into the history of hardship, loss, innovation and change that put Grant County on the path to becoming the top potato-producing county in the nation.