November 29, 2023

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Pamplin Media Group – History: When Potatoes Were the King of Crops

Potatoes reigning commodity in Central Oregon agriculture for more than 50 years

 - C.E. Downs of Powell Butte is shown with a potato harvest in 1930.

Central Oregon had a major influx of homesteaders near the turn of the 20th Century. Most of the homesteaders came to dry land farm in the arid region. Early cash crops included winter wheat, oats and barley. The rise of irrigation projects, beginning in 1904, led to opportunities to grow additional crops. Potatoes soon began to be a popular crop. A special variety locally known as netted gem or Deschutes netted gem potatoes became very popular.

Dunn Mustard in Powell Butte began growing the potatoes. It soon became a very popular commodity. Mustard became known as the Potato King of Central Oregon for a number of years. Many farmers converted to growing mostly potatoes. Mary Frye Mustard, Dunn’s wife was selected as the first “Potato Queen” when the Redmond Potato Festival was established.

Crook and Deschutes County farmers soon became prosperous. Potato harvest was so important that local schools would close for days in October so that students could assist in the annual harvest. Harvest was mostly done by hand up until the 1960s. The potatoes would be dug up my machine and then hand-loaded into burlap sacks. It was common for Warm Springs Indians to come help with the harvest. By the 1970s, harvesting methods included machines that unearthed the potatoes and loaded them directly onto trucks and taken to warehouses where they would be sorted and sacked. Once irrigation reached the Madras vicinity in 1946, most of Central Oregon farmers were producing potatoes.

Fred Hodecker owned and operated the largest potato warehouse in Central Oregon. At its peak, the Hodecker enterprise stored and shipped between 13,000 and 15,000 tons of potatoes per year. The Hodecker business had several large storage facilities in Central Oregon with the largest in Redmond. During the 1950s and 60s, Hodecker was known as the Potato King of Central Oregon.

By the 1980s, other areas in the west began to supersede the production in Central Oregon. Other areas had better climate, soils and water supplies. Eventually, potatoes were no longer produced in Central Oregon for a major food crop. Some production of seed potatoes is done mostly in the Madras region. But for one glorious period of time from about 1906 to the 1980s, potatoes were king of the crops in Central Oregon.

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