AMERICAN FALLS, Idaho — Lee Kress spends nearly every morning of potato harvest inside a makeshift food truck, catering to all of the employees of his family’s farm.
Kress, 77, has made a point of “staying out of the way” since turning the farm over to his sons, Thomas and Jason. But during a decade of “retirement,” he’s continued working tirelessly during harvest, and his efforts have been appreciated more than ever.
Together, Kress and his wife, Judy, prepare daily feasts in their “cook shack” — a trailer converted into a kitchen with a grill, roaster, microwave, refrigerators and a turkey fryer. For each meal, they fill more than 30 to-go boxes with heaping portions of spaghetti, sausage-and-spinach pasta, burgers and other house specialties, which potato truck drivers deliver to workers in the fields.
Kress has come to believe that potato harvest is a time to focus on good deeds and service — a rare event that brings out the best in people and unites many communities in Eastern Idaho. His service to the workers is but one of many examples of cooperation and good community fellowship during the “harvest window” from Sept. 9 through mid-October.
A grower in Idaho Falls digs 6 acres of spuds every year so community members can harvest them and stock their pantries for free.
Teachers at a Pocatello charter school never have trouble finding a farmer to let their students glean spuds to donate to the local food bank.
Each year, Shelley High School crowns a young woman as Miss Russet to serve the community and celebrate a crop that’s central to the local economy.
Many of the area’s small-scale potato farmers insist they’d be short harvest labor if not for area schools scheduling a two-week potato harvest break, which also provides vital income for the families of many students who work for the growers.
“Potato harvest is important because it’s so timely, and if you don’t get it done within that time period, you could have a hard frost and you can’t store them,” Kress said. “It’s a whole community effort because there are so many jobs that aren’t highly technical that people can do that aren’t well trained.”
At Kress’ food truck, crop consultants and neighbors often drop by for a meal and friendly conversation, and workers constantly stop by to thank the couple in person.
“We’ve got a dedicated staff, and it’s sort of a thank-you everyday,” Kress said as he stirred spaghetti sauce. “I’ve never been a believer that you’re above any job.”
Idaho farmers planted 325,000 of the 1.037 million U.S. potato acres raised in 2016, and the state’s growers harvested nearly 14 billion pounds of tubers, according to recent USDA estimates.
To put the numbers in perspective, Idaho Potato Commission President and CEO Frank Muir explained the state’s collective pile would cover a football field nearly a mile high with spuds. Muir said he wasn’t surprised when a firm conducting a survey for the Idaho Department of Tourism found Americans overwhelmingly associated the word “potatoes” with Idaho.
“Idaho is known for potatoes more than any other state is known for anything else,” Muir said.
To celebrate the completion of the state’s monumental potato harvest, Boyd Foster, of Ririe, and other growers organized a community celebration last fall in Idaho Falls. The public came for food and entertainment, and farmworkers and their families got free admission. The festival will take place a second time on Oct. 21.
Foster also hosts a popular community harvest tradition on his farm. Each fall, he digs 6 acres of Russet Burbanks from the center of a field, leaving potatoes on the surface. At 10 a.m. he gives the signal for a crowd that averages more than 400 to begin gleaning spuds. Some fill pickup trucks with potato boxes, which they deliver to friends in need. The event resembles a big Easter egg hunt.
“There’s nothing left in the field,” Foster said. “They do an excellent job of cleaning up.”
In return, many of his guests bring homemade goodies, such as bread, rolls and jam.
For two years, Foster sought to thank his community for its support by parking a truck filled with potatoes at a school or business parking lot with a “free potatoes” sign. He had few takers until nine years ago, when he invited the public to come to his fields and pick out their own spuds.
Foster believes people are more comfortable working for their food. Many elderly residents come with old-fashioned potato baskets, sharing stories with their grandchildren about helping farmers harvest potatoes by hand before the advent of modern equipment.
“It’s in our DNA to harvest,” Foster said. “I think that’s why it’s enjoyed.”
At the Pocatello Community School, first- and second-graders spend an entire year studying every subject with a potato-centric focus.
For example, they learn the life cycle of a potato plant in biology class and how potatoes impact Idaho’s economy in their local civics class.
The school’s curriculum also includes a community-service component. Teacher Whitney Griggs explained her classes glean potatoes from a different farm field each fall and donate the bags they fill to the local food bank. Finding a willing farmer has never been a problem.
“We try to mix it up because a lot of different farmers are willing to give and participate in our service project,” Griggs said.
This fall, grower Garth Van Orden invited the classes to glean one of his spud fields on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation. Van Orden’s staff left a row of potatoes in the field to expedite gleaning, an activity that’s gotten tougher as harvesting equipment has become more efficient.
“If we’re doing our job right, it’s slim pickings,” Van Orden said.
Van Orden also gave each child a Spuddy Buddy doll featuring the IPC’s mascot.
“They take a pretty minuscule amount of potatoes,” Van Orden said. “What isn’t minuscule is how wonderful it is to see all of these kids out here and the energy and excitement that they bring.”
For other Eastern Idaho growers, such as Merill Haney in Shelley, local high school students fill a critical need during potato harvest. Some of the smaller school districts in the region schedule a two-week potato harvest break, providing an opportunity for students to work harvest.
“We would have a very difficult time harvesting this crop without this assistance,” said Haney, who hires about six high school students each fall. “It’s hard to find enough labor supply in the area.”
When the harvest break ends, Haney said most students still come after school to help. He’s employed several low-income students who have used their earnings stay afloat financially, or gone on to college.
“I think (harvest) is a time to pay back both directions and help these farms help the schools with their tax dollars,” Haney said.
Haney’s grown children also return home from as far away as Puerto Rico to help with harvest.
Crowing a queen
When she was a little girl, Katelyn Elizondo used to host make-believe Miss Russet pageants with her Barbie dolls.
This fall, Elizondo got to live her childhood fantasy, when she won the coveted Miss Russet crown. The pageant is a tradition dating back generations at Shelley High School, where the mascot is also a Russet potato.
Elizondo played the piano as her talent for the pageant, and her service project will involve organizing visits to the local assisted living center.
“This is something I’ve dreamed of my whole life,” Elizondo said.
Miss Russet is a perennial guest of honor at Idaho Spud Day, a “gala celebration of the Idaho potato” hosted on Sept. 16 by the small town.
Basic American Foods donated thousands of baked potatoes that were given away to the crowd. Families competed in a tug-of-war, with a pit of mashed potatoes at the center. Les Brinkley, a former potato warehouse worker who is now a school counselor, served as the announcer during the world championship potato picking contest — a Shelley tradition that dates back to the early 1900s, with cash prizes of up to $100 awarded to victors.
“It’s the only spud picking contest that I know of, so that makes it a world championship,” Brinkley explained.
During the Spud Day Parade, Kevin Searle, with the local fresh potato shipping facility GPOD of Idaho, threw potato peelers from a potato truck to crowds gathered along the route. Searle said GPOD often supports local school teams and clubs by furnishing them with potatoes to sell as fundraisers.
“There are many family farms in this area, and they have grandfathers and great-grandfathers that were in the potato business,” Searle said.
Watching the parade with her children from the tailgate of her car, rural Shelley resident Rebecca Fielding explained most people in the community have some connection to the potato industry or potato harvest.
“We have a feed lot where we do corn and wheat and hay, but then we also go and help the uncles with their harvest of potatoes,” she said. “All of the Fielding grandkids and cousins help, and they even fly some in from Missouri to help with harvest, and it’s the same way with the community. Everybody just flocks to their farms and everybody helps get the harvest done.”