Potatoes were first introduced into Idaho not by a farmer but by a Presbyterian missionary named Henry Harmon Spalding. He established a mission in 1836 at Lapwai, in the state's northern panhandle, to bring Christianity to the Nez Perce Indians. He wanted to show the Nez Perce how to provide food for themselves through agriculture rather than hunting and gathering.
The Indians were probably the ones who made the first commercial sale of Idaho grown potatoes when they traded fresh potatoes for clothing and other goods to settlers traveling west in the wagon trains. Even though Spalding's and the Nez Perce Indians' potato crop was eventually successful, potatoes are no longer farmed in the Lapwai area.
Nearly all of the potatoes grown within the borders of the state of Idaho used to be one variety, the Russet Burbank.
• The origin of this famous Idaho baker goes back to 1872 and a New Englander named Luther Burbank who kept meticulous records of his garden plantings.
• He found in his garden a single fruit or seed ball of the potato variety Early Rose. The seed ball contained 23 seeds, all of which he planted and all of which grew and produced tubers.
• Two seedlings, he thought, did better than the Early Rose parent and one of the two was distinctly better in yield and size of tubers.
• Burbank felt that this new seedling, which would produce two or three times as much as ordinary potato varieties, should be introduced to the public.
• He sold the new potato to a J.H. Gregory of Marblehead, Massachusetts, for $150. Gregory named the variety Burbank Seedling, which later became known as simply Burbank.
• Luther Burbank used the money to move to California, taking with him ten tubers that Gregory allowed him to keep. These ten tubers appear to be the nuclear stock of the Burbank variety that was introduced on the West Coast.
• Burbank's potatoes were a success with more than 6 million bushels being produced in California, Oregon, and Washington by 1906.
• But Burbank's original potato variety, which was a smooth-skinned long white potato, was still not the slightly rough reticulated-skinned potato that made Idaho famous.
• According to Luther Burbank, the Russet Burbank was originated by a Lon D. Sweet of Denver, Colorado, who evidently selected a chance sport, or bud, out of Burbank's variety.
• Burbank noted, "These potatoes have a modified coat in a way that does not add to their attractiveness. It is said, however, that this particular variant is particularly resistant to blight, which gives it exceptional value."
• It was the Burbank variety that was mutated in Colorado which would eventually be known as the Netted Gem or the Russet Burbank.
• The Russet Burbank also became known as the potato that made Idaho famous.
The first substantial potato fields planted in Idaho belonged to Mormon colonists. Historical accounts indicate that their presence in Idaho was partially an accident.
As the numbers of Mormon colonists in the Salt Lake Valley increased, they pushed outward seeking new lands. The Mormon farmers had been directed to establish a new colony north of the Salt Lake Valley area in the Cache Valley. Believing they were still in Utah, the new families of settlers began immediately to establish their farms. Potatoes were one of the first items the farmers planted.
This is the first recorded planting of potatoes in Idaho in an area where the settlers remained and the crop is till grown to some extent today. The planting was accomplished three years before the Idaho Territory was organized.
These first Idaho settlers were pioneers mentally as well as geographically because they had the initiative and willingness to better their conditions regardless of physical hardships and uncertain futures.
In the river valleys, where water was easily diverted, and with the rich volcanic-ash soil, these hearty people raised a few more potatoes than they needed and found that the extra potatoes resulted in a good cash crop. From this small beginning, Idaho's farmers set out on the conquest of the potato markets of the United States.
See next article: The Growth of the Potato Industry in Idaho
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