There are few things as synonymous with Idaho as its potatoes. Our license plates tout them as famous. We drop an oversized tuber to mark midnight on New Year’s Eve. You can even sleep in one. As a state that produces about one-third of all potatoes in the United States, the crop is a key part of Idaho’s history, culture, and economy.
Historically, Idaho’s Snake River Plain has provided the ideal environmental conditions to produce large amounts of high quality potatoes. But climate change could make it difficult for Idaho farmers to produce their iconic crop.
Here’s why. Idaho’s mountains and winter snows are critical in creating a substantial water supply for its people and potatoes during the spring snowmelt. This water, held naturally in the ground and in reservoirs, is used throughout the growing season to irrigate thirsty potato plants and other crops. With modern irrigation systems, farmers apply the exact amount of water that is optimal for plant growth.
With this precise water supply, potatoes grow well in Idaho’s volcanic soils. The texture and mineral content of the land aids potato production. Then, high desert temperature conditions in Idaho help the potatoes grow best. The warm, sunny days and cool nights throughout the summer growing season contribute to our iconic tubers.
However, Idaho’s climate is actively changing, and potato plants are struggling. Our winter snow levels are decreasing, the mountain snow is melting sooner in the spring, and our overall temperatures are increasing. These climatic changes can impact the size, shape, and taste of potatoes.
When you hear the word potato, you likely think of the large, oval-shaped potato with a starchy white interior and thin-skinned, brown exterior. These potatoes are often called “Idaho Bakers” because they are the most common potato used for baked potatoes, and have been noted as Idaho’s most successful potato variety. The official name of this iconic potato variety is Russet Burbank. What you may not know about Russet Burbanks, is that they are also the most popular potato used for French fries.
The Idaho Russet Burbank potato, though, is extremely sensitive to temperature changes. Small increases in environmental temperature can alter the starches and sugars within the potato, discoloring the fries made from Russet Burbanks.
With climate change reducing the quality and quantity of Idaho’s informal mascot, the economic benefits of the entire potato industry could be affected. A consistent color throughout each French fry, for example, has a large impact on the associated quality – and price – of that product. If the quality of the potato decreases, the price of the potato product will decrease accordingly. As with most crops, the farmer’s bottom line is extremely dependent on the price at which the farmer can sell that crop.
Lower prices for one of Idaho’s major exports can have a large effect on Idaho’s economy given the importance of the potato for the state’s agricultural sector. In 2011, for example, fresh, frozen, and dehydrated potato processing facilities contributed 7,478 jobs and $542.5 million in income for the state of Idaho. These processing plants are located all across the Snake River Plain, providing important economic benefits to rural communities.
By moving toward a carbon-neutral Idaho, we at the Idaho Conservation League work to protect Idaho’s public lands, air, water, fish and wildlife, and quality of life. From our favorite foods and drinks, like French fries and beer, to wildlife like wolverines and pika so many aspects of our world are impacted by climate change. It’s up to us to protect them as we combat climate change in Idaho. Tell your decision-makers that you want to protect Idaho’s climate, and its iconic potatoes, today.