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Oregon Trails: Potato Festival

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NEAR MERRILL, Ore. — October means harvest time in the Klamath Basin, especially potato harvest time. It’s been that way for a hundred years or more, and continues to be one of the main money makers in the region. To celebrate, every year about this time folks kick up their heels at the Annual Klamath Basin Potato Festival; this is their 76th year.

“Originally it was a buffalo feed, I remember that. Then it turned into a beef feed. It’s grown over the years,” recalled Bill Moore, the Parade Co-Grand Marshal.

“The events that were special, I think that they’ve tried to keep them pretty much the same,” said Willene Moore, the other Parade Co-Grand Marshal.

The potato festival got its start in the early 1930’s, when most of the work was done by hand with the help of simple diggers pulled by tractors. The festival has continued to grow since then, and continues to be a place where people get together, have fun and renew acquaintances.

“It’s an occasion for everybody to come to town, have some barbeque and sit down and visit, Willene says.

The first potatoes were planted in the Klamath Falls area in 1894, but it was the Klamath Reclamation Project that drained the marshes and shallows around Lower Klamath and Tule Lakes, and opened up rich lake bottom land that potatoes love. It also brought the water needed to irrigate the thousands of acres now planted in the Basin.

A Chamber of Commerce brochure circulated in 1928 praised the Klamath area as the “fastest developing potato growing section of the Pacific Coast”, and correctly predicted spuds would become one of the major crops of the Klamath Basin. By 1926, 425 railcar loads of potatoes were shipped out, and that doubled the next year. Within ten years, growers where shipping more than 8,000 railcars – a 300% increase in 14 years.

By 1936, potatoes returned nearly $5 million to basin growers, or nearly half the income of the Klamath Basin at the time. Old photos show what a labor intensive job the harvest was, but the war years and labor shortages forced more mechanization. Today, harvesters teamed with large trucks, eliminate field bagging. Now, potatoes of many different varieties are grown, from organics to those grown to make potato chips.

“There’s a lot of specialty markets, but they’re growing a lot of chippers now, compared to fresh market spuds, too. They still grow Norkotas, the Russetts and that,” said former potato farmer Greg Matthews.

The potato business has been largely a family business throughout the Klamath Basin for about a hundred years or more now, bringing folks together at the potato festival is something of a re-union that helps unite those families together.