Washington potato growers begin efforts to donate a million pounds of surplus potatoes during the COVID-19 crisis by handing out tons in Ritzville on April 29, 2020.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 5/27/2020
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 21044

On April 29, 2020, volunteers hand out free potatoes in a drive-through giveaway that causes a rare traffic jam in the small Eastern Washington city of Ritzville in Adams County. The distribution of nearly 20 tons of potatoes donated by the Wollman family, which operates the Hutterian Brethren Farm near Warden in Grant County, marks the start of efforts by Washington potato growers and the Washington State Potato Commission to donate a million pounds of surplus potatoes to those in need due to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic crisis. Ordinarily the vast majority of potatoes grown in Washington are processed into french fries used in restaurants around the world. With restaurants across the globe closed as a result of efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19, demand for potatoes to process plummets and Washington growers are left with tons of potatoes and nowhere to sell them. Facing an uncertain future themselves, growers organize to donate some of the unexpected surplus, with giveaways around the state following the initial event in Ritzville.

An Industry Built on Processing

Potatoes are Washington's second-most valuable crop, after apples, and the state is second in the country, behind Idaho, in total potato production. Unlike Idaho, which "dominates the production of fresh market potatoes, a grocery store staple that continues to sell well amid the pandemic" (Bernton), more than 90 percent of Washington potatoes are processed into french fries, hash browns, tater tots, and other frozen products. Although potatoes of all varieties are grown across the state, most of the crop comes out of the Columbia Basin of Central Washington. With a long growing season, long hot sunny summer days, good soils, and, since the 1950s, ample irrigation water from the Columbia Basin Project, the region produces more potatoes per acre than anywhere else in the world, largely russet varieties bred to grow well in the area and for easy-to-process size and shape.

Nearly all the Columbia Basin crop is processed, much of it near where it is grown. Potato processing and french-fry manufacturing are the leading industrial employment in both Grant County and Adams County. Most of the processed potatoes are sold outside the state, and more than half are exported. The rise of processing and exports made potato-growing big business in Washington, with more than 160,000 acres yielding a 2019 harvest of more than 10 billion pounds worth $845 million. But the focus on growing for processors also made it especially vulnerable to the massive economic downturn that quickly followed the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic that began sweeping the globe at the start of 2020.

As early reports emerged of a deadly new coronavirus, Washington potato growers still had more than 10 percent of the 2019 crop in storage, scheduled to head to processing plants over the first half 2020 until the new harvest began in July. And they were beginning to plant the seed potatoes from which that new crop would grow. But even as they did the global economy generally, and the market for french fries in particular, were crashing as a result of the drastic measures needed to slow the spread of COVID-19. Beginning in China, where the novel coronavirus was first reported, followed by other countries in Asia, then Italy, Spain, and others in Europe, followed by the United States and more, non-essential businesses were closed and residents asked to stay home. With dine-in restaurants, bars, and sports venues where most french fries are consumed closed across the U.S. and most of the world, demand plummeted.

Some Washington growers did not plant in 2020, or planted fewer acres than usual. Many who had planted before the shutdowns and resulting economic downturn, in anticipation of receiving contracts for the usual quantities from processors, found those contracts were not forthcoming. Existing contracts were also cut back or canceled. By early May, some growers were making the painful decision to plow under fields they had just recently planted, rather than continuing to spend the thousands of dollars per acre necessary to raise crops with nowhere in sight to sell them. They began with early-maturing varieties, especially the Ranger Russet, which does not store well, leaving later-maturing varieties in the ground in hopes that demand might rebound by fall.

In the meantime, growers also had to decide what to do with the tons of potatoes from last year's crop still in storage sheds, as well as tons of seed potatoes they were not planting. Many quickly decided that while they would not be able to recover the money invested in those potatoes, they could donate them to help other Washingtonians also suffering the effects of the COVID-caused economic collapse. Working with the Washington State Potato Commission, they began organizing a series of potato giveaways around the state, with a goal of donating one million pounds of potatoes to those in need.

Dump or Donate

Commission director Chris Voigt credited the Wollman family with originating the giveaway project -- "They've inspired a lot of other farmers" (Dinman). The Wollmans' Hutterian Brethren Farm near Warden in eastern Grant County was not a typical agricultural business. The Hutterian Brethren, also known as Hutterites, are a small religious group that traces its origins to the early Protestant Reformation in Europe. Members, who live communally in communities called colonies, generally work in farming, and their farms, including the one in Warden, are owned and worked in common. Unlike most potato growers, the Wollmans did not hire seasonal workers for planting and harvest; instead several generations of the family did that work themselves.

But while they may have operated differently, the Wollmans faced the same economic conditions other growers did, and in the spring of 2020 found themselves with canceled contracts and millions of pounds of potatoes in storage. Looking at a half-full storage shed that should have been empty by then, Marvin Wollman asked a reporter rhetorically, "These are good potatoes. We don't want to throw them away. It's just, what do you do with them?" (Marantos). In another interview, he answered his own question: "We can either dump them or donate them ... There are people going hungry" (Culver).

On Wednesday, April 29, 2020, Wollman and his family began donating them. They loaded a truck with around 20 tons of potatoes and drove it 30 miles east from their Hutterian Brethren Farm to Ritzville, the county seat of Adams County. The distribution did not get a lot of advance notice. The potato commission, which helped pay for bagging and transporting the potatoes, announced the upcoming giveaway on its blog, and there were small announcements on the Adams County and other Facebook pages. But that morning a sizable backup developed as volunteers garbed in the facemasks that had become ubiquitous in the pandemic handed out 15-pound bags of potatoes to a long line of waiting cars.

Members of area churches and local officials, including Republican State Representative Mary Dye of Pomeroy, who helped organize the event, and Stephen McFadden, Adams County economic development director, were among those assisting in the distribution. Ritzville residents and others from as far as Spokane and Kennewick picked up a bag for themselves, and sometimes another one or two for family members or neighbors. In addition, larger loads of potatoes were packed into trucks and vans for delivery to food banks throughout Eastern Washington. Within a few hours, some 36,000 pounds of potatoes had been given away.

The following day Wollman delivered another truckload of potatoes to the Grant County Fairgrounds in Moses Lake for a giveaway there. The process repeated as grateful recipients waited in a line of cars more than two miles long for the free 15-pound bags of potatoes.

Like the Wollmans' Warden farm, the Spokane Hutterian Brethren farm in Reardan, Lincoln County, east of Spokane, also worked to donate potatoes. The two Hutterite communities are closely related, the Warden colony having branched off from the Spokane one in the 1970s. The Reardan farm provided a load of free potatoes that was handed out on May 6 in Oroville, in northern Okanogan County near the Canadian border. The load was delivered to Oroville by truck driver Kevin Barry, whose employer, Warner Enterprises, provided the truck.

The Road to a Million Pounds

Many other growers also worked to donate potatoes. The potato commission, which helped coordinate the effort, set a goal of distributing a million pounds to those in need, dubbing the project "On the Road to a Million Pounds of Potatoes." Although growers provided the potatoes at no cost, before the spuds could be given out they had to be washed, bagged, and transported. The commission set up a fundraising campaign to cover those costs, estimated at 7 cents a pound. It also provided coloring pages for children and recipes to be handed out along with the potatoes.

Working with local volunteers, the commission held the first giveaway in Western Washington on Thursday, May 7. Growers trucked thousands of pounds of russet potatoes to the Outlet Collection mall in Auburn in south King County, where they were handed out to area residents, food banks, and the Salvation Army. Other giveaways around the state followed in quick succession.

On May 8, in conjunction with hunger-relief charity Second Harvest and the Three Rivers Convention Center, the commission helped give away nearly 100,000 pounds of potatoes to residents of the Tri-Cities area in South Central Washington. The potatoes were handed out at the Three Rivers campus in Kennewick along with 1,000 boxes of other food provided by Second Harvest.

In Eastern Washington a local agricultural company, Palouse Brands, handed out more than 55,000 pounds of potatoes in Pullman, Whitman County, over the weekend. The truckload was donated by Philip Gross of the Spokane Hutterian Brethren farm in Reardan. On Friday evening, Palouse Brands delivered 5,000 pounds of the potatoes to food banks, restaurants, and others. Then on Saturday morning a long line of cars stretched through the city to pick up the remaining 50,000 pounds. Palouse Brands employees and volunteers used a conveyor belt to unload the semi-trailer. Workers in facemasks loaded potatoes from the belt into buckets and carried them to waiting cars to fill the bags, boxes, or coolers drivers had brought.

The largest single giveaway (as of late May) came on May 14 in Tacoma, Pierce County. Members of the Washington National Guard joined local volunteers from the Emergency Food Network and other organizations in the Tacoma Dome parking lot to hand out 200,000 pounds of washed and bagged potatoes, provided by the state potato commission, to the usual long line of waiting cars.

Growers from Grant, Adams, Benton, and Franklin counties shipped another 100,000 pounds of russet potatoes over the mountains for distribution in Skagit County. Members of the National Guard again helped hand out the potatoes, in a giveaway held on May 19 at the Cascade Mall in Burlington. Local officials including the mayors of Burlington and Mount Vernon also participated. With so many potatoes available, each family was able to take two 15-pound bags.

By then authorities around the world, including in Washington, were beginning to implement some easing of the business closures and stay-home orders implemented to slow the pandemic, including in some areas limited reopening of restaurants. But the long-term economic outlook in general, and the market for Washington's russet potatoes in particular, remained uncertain. With tons still in storage, Washington potato growers continued their effort to donate a million pounds to fellow Washingtonians who needed them through additional giveaways around the state.


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