Nov./Dec. 2015 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Ching Lee
Photos by Richard Green
Family's potatoes a favorite for chips and fries
John Moore III and his father, John Moore II, grow "chippers" in Kern County, the largest potato-growing region in California.
It would be hard to imagine going to a vending machine or the snack aisle of the grocery store today without encountering bags of potato chips.
But prior to the 1920s, potato chips were sold from cracker barrels, tins or glass display cases that left the chips at the bottom stale and crumbled. Laura Scudder, an entrepreneur who launched a potato chip company in Los Angeles County in 1926, came up with the idea of ironing wax paper into bags filled with chips and then sealing the tops shut, so the chips stayed fresh and crisp longer. This innovation forever changed the way potato chips—and many other snack foods—are packaged and sold.
With the potato chip business booming, Scudder, whose company had plants in Anaheim and Tracy until the late 1980s, kept many California potato growers busy—including farmer John Moore's family.
In fact, Moore Farms had been growing spuds for the fresh market even before Scudder started her snack-food empire. Based in Kern County, the state's largest potato-growing region, the family farm was established in the early 1920s by John Moore's great-grandfather, John Chessher Moore.
During harvest, potatoes are dug from beneath the ground and then loaded onto trucks destined for the packing shed.
After becoming a grower for Laura Scudder, the family began planting what's known in the business as "chippers," processing potatoes that chip makers prefer for their uniform round shape, thin skin and white flesh. Today, the family grows most of its potatoes for Frito-Lay. Some of the crop also goes to Pik-Nik Foods, which makes shoestring potato snacks, and to burger restaurants such as In-N-Out for making french fries.
Also known as white-rounds, chipping potatoes are different from other types of potatoes such as russet, yellow, red, blue and fingerling, all of which have qualities that work well for different uses. Chippers are ideal for making potato chips, Moore said, because they are high in solids and low in sugar, a combination that produces a light golden color when fried rather than turning brown.
But chippers make lousy mashed potatoes, he warned, because their high water content tends to turn the dish into a gluey mess.
"My mom is always trying to make mashed potatoes with them and now she thinks she can't make mashed potatoes," he said. "But it's not her fault; it's just the potato."
The way Moore says he likes to use chippers at home is to slice them thin, toss them with olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper, and then roast them in the oven.
"They're a flavorful potato—and great for frying and baking," he said.
The potatoes are cleaned, sorted and readied to be shipped to companies to be made into chips, snacks or french fries.
Fresh from the fields
Even though Idaho is famous for its spuds and remains the nation's No. 1 producer, chip makers turn to California, particularly Kern County, for a specific reason: to fill a supply gap early in the season when other potato-growing regions are still thawing out from wintry weather.
"If you want fresh potatoes, you have to come to Kern County first because growers here harvest in the spring, when the rest of the country is not even planting yet," said Joe Nunez, a University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor.
California ranks 10th in U.S. potato production, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Besides Kern County, the state's other major potato-growing regions are the Klamath Basin in Siskiyou and Modoc counties, the Delta Basin in San Joaquin County, and the desert and mountain valleys of Imperial, Riverside and San Diego counties.
While grapes, almonds, dairy, citrus fruit and beef cattle dominate Kern County's agricultural landscape today, the potato was one of the region's top crops starting in the 1930s, with acreage at its highest in the mid-1940s.
"From the '40s to the mid-'60s, Kern County was a major player in potato production," Nunez said.
He noted the region historically has been a big producer of fresh-market potatoes, most notably long-white potatoes such as the White Rose and Cal White, which are good for all-purpose use. But with chip makers needing a steady supply of potatoes, a significant portion of the county's crop also is grown for processing.
The region's farmers still grow the majority of their potatoes for the fresh market, Nunez said, but both fresh and processing potato acreage has dropped since the late 1960s, with the advent of temperature-controlled storage techniques that allow potatoes to be kept in good condition for months after harvest.
John Moore III walks across a potato field that's ready for harvest.
Just as Kern County agriculture has changed through the years, Moore Farms grows a different mix of crops today, including citrus fruit, pistachios and almonds. But the family has kept its longtime tradition of growing potatoes and still runs a potato packing and shipping operation.
Potato planting starts in December and typically runs through February. In contrast, most U.S. potatoes are planted in the spring and harvested in the fall. As a root vegetable, potatoes can be grown from seed or by planting parts of the actual potato—that is, 2-inch chunks cut from the tubers that include the "eye," or the small indentations from which sprouts will grow.
When the potato pieces are planted in the ground, a new tuber will sprout from that eye, growing into a vine plant with green leaves and tiny, showy flowers aboveground. Beneath the soil, the plant will produce five to six potatoes, which are then harvested after 120 days.
In Kern County, harvest begins in May and runs until about mid-July. While other U.S. potatoes are harvested in the fall and kept in storage for as long as they can be sold, Moore pointed out that his potatoes are taken from the field, shipped to the packing shed, cleaned, graded and loaded onto trucks within six hours.
"Our potatoes are as fresh as you're going to get," he said. "The California potato is going to be fresher than anything else you're going to get."
The majority of Moore's potatoes are destined for Frito-Lay's processing plants throughout the West. Oversized potatoes, usually harvested late in the season, are sold to In-N-Out, a major customer of chippers.
Ed Staunton, a third-generation grower in Tulelake who sits on the National Potato Council board, said other fast-food chains typically use the russet Burbank—the most popular and widely grown potato in the U.S.—but In-N-Out has become well-known for using chipping potatoes to make its fresh, hand-cut french fries.
"I think In-N-Out has just found a niche to use the chip potato, and it's become a good niche for us because there really wasn't a market for these big potatoes," he said.
Of course, more standard-sized white-round chippers continue to find their way into millions of bags each year as one of the nation's favorite snacks—these days without the wax paper.
You say potato, I say…
With their different shapes, colors and sizes, it can take some guidance to know which potatoes to use for which dish. Potatoes come in many different varieties, but they tend to fall into three categories: starchy, waxy and all-purpose.
Starchy potatoes such as the russet are low in moisture with a floury, mealy texture. They are ideal for frying and baking, and make light, fluffy mashed potatoes. Because they are high in starch, they tend to fall apart easily after cooking, making them less suited for potato salads and scalloped potatoes.
Waxy potatoes such as the red-skinned and slender fingerling types are low in starch, moist and have a smooth texture. They stay firm and hold their shape throughout the cooking process, so they are perfect for making stews, soups and potato salads but not for mashing.
All-purpose potatoes have medium starch content. They include yellow varieties such as Yukon Gold and Yellow Finn, long-whites, and blue and purple potatoes. With their moist, smooth and creamy texture, they work in most potato dishes and do particularly well roasted or made into gratins.