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Idaho potato farmers worry struggles could last past the pandemic

Posted at 11:31 AM, Jul 31, 2020

When you step inside a restaurant in eastern Idaho, it’s no secret which menu item is a favorite one.

"I don’t know what other kind of potatoes we would have if we didn’t have Idaho potatoes," said FaDale Fisher, who works at Big Jud's in Ashton, Idaho.

The restaurant is feeling life again in a state that produces more potatoes than any other.

“Now, we’re almost back to full force, even though we are still limited on tables, business is still really well," she said.

Idaho potatoes are also an important ingredient at Grandpa's Southern BBQ in Idaho Falls.

Owner Lloyd Westbrook says take-out orders have helped his restaurant thrive this year. He's been in business since 1995.

“You will find hospitality in restaurants out West, but it’s just not quite southern hospitality," he said.

While the sight of spirited kitchens could give hope the food industry is beginning to rebound, for some of the potato farmers who work close by in this state, that hope feels very far away.

“It’s unclear if we’re even going to be able to stay in business," said Doug Hess.

Hess' family has farmed his land since the 1800s.

“When you look around, you realize you’re actually farming with not your equity but your grandfather's, your father's equity," Hess said.

Hess’ specialty is seed potatoes. They are grown free of virus and genetic defects.

He sells to commercial farmers, who use the seed potatoes to grow the ones you eventually eat.

Hess says the pandemic caused a food-chain reaction that hurt his business. When restaurants closed, the distributors that deliver potatoes to kitchens pulled back on buying from commercial growers, and those growers bought less of his already grown crop.

"We were anticipating a $15 bag of a potatoes," Hess said. "Click of a switch if you could get rid of it for $3."

He was left with a pile of potatoes, and he donated about a quarter of his crop.

He's now planted significantly less as COVID-19 cases rise.

The federal government has stepped in to help the potato industry, but Hess says the struggles of he and his fellow farmers could last long after the pandemic.

"It could be three or four years out before this thing stabilizes," he said.

For this lifelong farmer, it's a generational pressure.

“Every time I sit at the table and I look at my sons thinking, ‘Will I be able to pass this on as my father passed on to me?’” Hess said.