Oregon Trails: Klamath Basin Potatoes

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KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. – Folks in the Klamath Basin are kicking up their heels this weekend for the 75th Annual Merrill Potato Festival. It’s a celebration of one of the most important businesses in the Klamath Basin.

It’s harvest time in the Klamath Basin. Not so much hay or wheat right now, but mostly potatoes. This area on the Running-“Y” ranch is planted in a thousand acres of organic potatoes, many of which are going to make organic potato chips. It’s an area that was drained from Upper Klamath Lake decades ago.

For nearly a hundred years, the Old Lake bottom soil of the Klamath Basin has been identified by many as the best potato growing land in the United States. Even before the development of irrigation, the first so-called “potato king”, Obed short, began raising potatoes on hillside land south of Klamath Falls in 1894. He planted 80 acres and harvested 150-to-350 bushels of spuds an acre. He sold them at prices of fifty cents to four dollars a bushel.

Basin farmers started slowly, but the Klamath Reclamation Project in the early 1900’s opened up Lower Klamath Lake and other areas with rich fertile loam soil just prefect for growing potatoes. A chamber of commerce brochure circulated in 1928 praised the Basin as “the fastest developing potato growing section of the Pacific Coast”, and predicted spuds would become one of the major crops of the Basin. In 1923 the Klamath Potato Grower Association was organized and marked the beginning of commercial potato development in the Basin.

In 1924 good seed potato stock was introduced that helped the industry grow rapidly. Up until then, little was grown for export only for local consumption. By 1926, 425 rail cars were shipped out. The next year that doubled to 850, and 6,000 acres were planted in potatoes. Within ten years, the yield increased from a little over a hundred bushels an acre to more than 340 bushels and more than 8,000 rail cars were sent out, the equivalent of a small trainload every day in the year! A 300% increase in 14 years! By 1936, potatoes returned nearly five million dollars to basin growers or nearly half the income of the Klamath Basin at that time.

At first, planting and harvesting was done with horses and simple tools. Gradually, tractors and powered harvesters came into play, along with better fertilizers and other innovations. Today, many growers are producing a wide variety of potato crops to diversify, and tap into niche markets. Harvesting potatoes has changed a lot in the last hundred years or so. But one thing is for certain, Klamath Basin is certainly one of the best places in the country to grow spuds.

So, the Klamath Basin Potato Festival pays homage to what was once the lowly potato, which now comes in a may sizes, shapes and colors from what early growers planted. Not only has it provided many families a livelihood for generations, it’s also helped develop the Klamath Basin area. From 1916, when 230 acres produced 3,500 dollars worth of potatoes to today’s thousands of acres worth millions of dollars, and shipping to markets world-wide.

OSU Extension agent willy Riggs says potatoes are now worth about 30 million a year to the Basin economy. Some 14,000 acres is in production. About half of those are fresh potatoes, while 40% are used for potato chips most going to Frito-Lay. About 10% of those grown in the Klamath Basin are used as seed potatoes for future crops.