Growing potatoes in the Klamath Basin
written by Sophia McDonald | photography by Micah Whaley
From the time Dan Chin was knee high to a grasshopper, he knew he wanted to be a farmer. As a child he loved putting on his cowboy hat and boots and exploring his family’s potato fields near Klamath Falls.
His was a future that retained some of the great joys of childhood—days under blue skies spent digging in the dirt for buried treasure. There’s more responsibility now, of course. The family business, Wong Potatoes, farms 4,900 acres of land, which means managing plenty of people and red tape. But he’s never lost his excitement for growing food.
Chin’s grandfather, Sam Wong, was the first member of his family to farm in the United States. He and his family emigrated from China to San Francisco in the early 1900s. “He was from southern China, and they grew potatoes and rice there, so he knew how to grow potatoes,” Chin said. “He came to this country looking for the land of opportunity.”
He didn’t find it in California’s central valley or western Nevada. For a while he gave up on growing potatoes and opened a Chinese restaurant. Then he heard people were having some luck with the crop in the Klamath Basin. “He rented some land and started growing potatoes and did really good,” Chin said. “That was in the 1930s and we’ve been growing potatoes in the Klamath Basin ever since.”
Potatoes: an Oregon Legacy
Like his grandfather and father before him, Chin starts dropping pieces of cut-up potato in the ground in late April or early May. The Klamath Basin sits at a relatively high elevation, giving it a higher risk of frost than other regions. This can be an advantage, too—pests don’t like hot days and cold nights, so they’re less of a problem.
Potatoes start coming out of the ground in September. They’re stored in large cellars kept at a constant 42 degrees. Air is pumped in, and light—which fosters sprouting and aging—is kept out.
Chin’s father had the job of modernizing and mechanizing the growing operation. One of Chin’s major contributions has been shifting about half of the farm to organic production. As his children got older and became dedicated to feeding their kids organic food, he could see firsthand that the market was changing. “I like the natural aspect of organic as well,” he said.
Even so, he remains a champion of biotechnology. “Everyone thinks biotech crops are bad for you, but they’re a lot safer than putting certain chemicals on,” Chin said. “The stuff they’re coming out with now is pretty amazing. It’s going to be the wave of the future.”
Chin’s other big change was looking beyond the “big three” potatoes—Russets, Round Red and yellows—and introduced new varieties to the farm. Among them are white Klamath Pearls, purple Huckleberry Gold, Purple Fiesta and heirloom fingerlings such as Russian Banana and Amarosa.
Potatoes are often a commodity crop, grown for high yield, appearance and processing ability. But Chin believed in getting outside of that mindset. He developed a different set of parameters for picking a potato: “It’s got to look good, it’s got to taste good, and it’s got to cook good. If you look at varieties like that you’re going to get repeat consumers.”
So far that model seems to be working. Chin’s fresh spuds go all over the world, from New Seasons stores in Oregon to markets in Taiwan. Even though business is good, Chin’s children don’t share his desire for farm life. As a result, he’s considering transitioning the company to his employees when he’s ready to retire. If they take it on, buried treasure will continue coming out of this land for a long time.
The economics of Oregon potatoes
Idaho reigns supreme in potato production, but Oregon ranks fifth overall. It has about 105 farms with an annual economic impact of $1.2 billion. “Eighty-three percent are processed into something,” said Bill Brewer, president and CEO of Oregon Potato Commission. “It could be French fries, it could be hash browns, it could be dehydrated products or potato chips. About 3 percent are grown to be replanted for seed potatoes, so that leaves 14 percent that are fresh table stock.”
Potatoes are perhaps best in side dishes, where their flavor can really shine through. “I adore the humble potato,” said Jeff Emerson, executive chef of Buckman Public House. “The ubiquitous, overlooked, over-sauced vehicle for ketchup, ranch and gravy is an incredibly dynamic and seasonal vegetable.” His recipe for poached and buttered potatoes epitomizes a simple yet flavorful approach to cooking with them.
Cook sliced spuds, then stack them into cairn-like piles with the recipe for Yukon gold potatoes with smoked trout roe, courtesy of chef Jonathan Berube of Portland’s Radar. Or crush and fry them á la Jacques Pépin (who popularized this preparation) with Joshua McFadden’s potatoes with crispy herbs and garlic. The recipe comes from Six Seasons: A New Way with Vegetables, the new cookbook from the chef at Portland’s Ava Gene’s.