Started From the Bottom

Posted in Blog, Potato on Thursday, May 02, 2024

All heroes must go on a great journey.

Started From the Bottom

EVERYONE LOVES A GOOD “HUMBLE BEGINNINGS” STORY. No matter what culture or part of the world you find yourself in, people are drawn to stories like Jeff Bezos starting Amazon out of a garage, or JK Rowling writing the outline of “Harry Potter” on a napkin in a London diner.

But what about the humble beginnings of Washington’s potatoes? Sure, we all see potatoes in their most glamorous forms, cut into salty french fries or crisp potato chips. But how do they reach our lunch trays or dinner tables after being grown underground?

The early life of a potato is quite dark and dirty — literally. The rich soils of the Columbia Basin and Skagit Valley in Washington make for a fertile and productive potato industry, but when those potatoes are harvested each summer, it is the first time they ever see the light of day. Potato harvesters lift the potatoes from the ground and move the crop (along with lots of extra soil) onto a series of webs where the loose soil is sieved out. The potatoes are then carried on a conveyor belt to a side elevator and into a trailer pulled behind a semitruck.

Their journey has just begun.

These trucks carry tons of potatoes in bulk to their next destination: the storage facility. Washington’s temperate climate offers ideal conditions for long-term storage, with facilities equipped with advanced temperature and humidity-control systems. Potatoes are stored in ventilated warehouses or specialized storage units, where conditions mimic the cool, dark environment of their underground origins. This careful storage ensures that Washington's potatoes remain crisp and flavorful, and it also allows for the potato harvest to last the whole year. Customer demand for potato products is consistent all year, so it’s critical to be able to store potatoes after the summer harvest until, say, January.

Around 90% of Washington potatoes are processed, mostly within the state. The potatoes are mainly processed into frozen french fries, with many going to overseas markets. Japan, South Korea, and Mexico purchase approximately 70% of the french fries made from exported Washington potatoes every year, generating around $969 million.

Processing plants in Washington use state-of-the-art technology to peel, slice, dice, and package potatoes according to customer specifications. Each processor is a bit different, but the broad strokes are the same: After potatoes have been cleaned and peeled, they are then sliced and blanched in boiling water. After drying, they are then fried in oil, which partially cooks them and gives them their golden color. Finally, after cooling and drying, the fries are flash frozen and packed.

The processed potatoes are then packaged and prepared for export to destinations around the world. Washington's strategic location on the West Coast provides easy access to major ports, facilitating efficient export operations. Potatoes are loaded onto cargo ships or transported via rail to reach global markets in Asia, Europe, and beyond. Each shipment represents not only the culmination of months of meticulous cultivation and processing but also the embodiment of Washington's commitment to quality and excellence in agriculture.

The journey of a potato from harvest to global export is a testament to the ingenuity and dedication of Washington State's agricultural industry. From the fields to the ports, every step of this journey is meticulously planned and executed to ensure that Washington's potatoes reach consumers worldwide in optimal condition. As these humble tubers traverse continents and cross oceans, they carry with them the rich flavors and traditions of the Pacific Northwest, making Washington synonymous with quality potatoes on the global stage.

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