Baked, boiled, fried, browned or totted, the world loves its potatoes. So much so that a Central Washington hamlet, Othello, can rightly claim its place as the center of the potato world, processing 1.5 billion pounds of spuds every year.
That’s 15% of total North American production. Every 10 minutes for roughly 10 hours a day, trucks carrying nearly 160,000 potatoes each (about 60,000 pounds) arrive in Othello. Once unloaded, they are turned into a wide range of frozen potato products to keep up with the world’s insatiable appetite for Washington spuds.
Potatoes are big business in this town of 8,700. Roughly a third of the workforce is employed by McCain or Simplot, the city’s two major processing firms. They’re big business for the state, too. Potatoes are the second most valuable agricultural export, right after seafood, which makes sense since they go together, like, um, fish and chips.
Central Washington has received several blessings over the decades that have made it a rich, productive agricultural region. In the 1950s, the Columbia Basin Project helped channel water from the Snake and Columbia rivers to the area. In the 1980s, Mount St. Helens blew her stack and dropped six inches of volcanic soil onto the land, which is rich in nutrients that potatoes love. The area yields twice as many potatoes per acre as its more famous potato-farming neighbor, Idaho.
Climate change has stifled the potato crop in other states. Last year, California droughts reduced potato production by 30%. The Midwest is experiencing hotter, drier weather, which isn’t ideal for potatoes as they need lots of water and cool nights to grow.
Even in optimal growing conditions, potatoes are a matter of taste. Potatoes from this part of the state get top marks there too. McDonald’s, a major customer of Simplot hash browns, said the Othello plant scores highest among its global network of suppliers.
As with most growing regions, water is the wildcard in future growth. The region doesn’t have a shortage like other states; only three percent of the Columbia River’s water flow is being tapped right now. Water is indeed plentiful, but getting it from point A to point B has been the challenge. A long stalled pipeline project that would connect the river to the canals that feed water to this part of the state is still years away from completion. When completed, it will provide the area surrounding Othello with 70 years of readily available fresh water.
Potato processors are already betting the farm on Othello, so to speak. They believe the town, with its renewable energy portfolio and favorable climate, will allow potatoes to increase yields as the climate in other parts of the world becomes too hot or too dry.
Already, McCain has embarked on a $300 million expansion of its Othello plant to keep up with demand. The addition includes a new tasting laboratory where researchers can study different microclimates to find the ones that are the most conducive to growing the best potatoes.