Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Spud Farmer, Expert, and Booster Joe Marshall – Idaho® Potato King [otd 04/03]

Joe Marshall. Beal & Wells photo.
Joseph P. Marshall, who did more than any other one person to improve and popularize the Idaho® potato, was born April 3, 1874 in Versailles, Ohio, about thirty miles northwest of Dayton. He moved west to Montana in 1892 and went to work at a stock ranch north of Billings. Over a period of years, he taught himself civil engineering as it related to canal building and irrigations systems.

 While shuttling between projects in Montana, North Dakota, and Texas, he also examined irrigation possibilities around what was soon to become Twin Falls, Idaho. He claimed land nearby in 1903 and moved his family there three years later. By then, canals were feeding water to acreage in the area, the railroad had arrived, and Twin Falls was booming.

Joe began raising potatoes on his Idaho farm in about 1908, expanding his holdings over the years. For awhile he also traveled extensively to handle development projects in Utah and Mexico. However, as he became increasingly involved with his Idaho operation, Marshall spent more and more time studying how to effectively grow high-quality potatoes.

Idaho potato production hit a crisis point in 1921-1922. The quality of the tubers had deteriorated and was further degraded by disease infestations. Land from failed operations depressed the books of regional banks, and many more farmers with mortgages found themselves in dire financial straits. By then, Joe had gained a considerable reputation for his knowledge and attention to detail in raising, handling, and marketing potatoes.

Marshall began acting as an agent for the banks and out-of-state owners, trying to upgrade potato industry practices all over the state. His methods involved upgraded seed potatoes, improved field practices, and more care in post-harvest tuber handling. Soon, the reliably high quality of his potatoes, and those of farmers who followed his lead, began to command premium prices.
Marshall checking Idaho® potatoes in the field.
For high-resolution versions, contact the Idaho Potato Commission.

Naturally, top prices encouraged greater and greater production, which required a heightened effort to maintain the best quality. The University of Idaho (UI) helped with on-going research into all aspects of potato production. Also, the state created what would eventually become the Idaho® Potato Commission. (Idaho spuds became distinctive enough to merit a Registered Trademark.)

Potato history credits Chicago restauranteur Dario Louis Toffenetti with popularizing the huge “Idaho baker” as an inexpensive-but-filling menu item.

As the story goes, Marshall had made a trial shipment to Chicago that contained only the largest tubers. But the load failed to sell. (Joe probably had to charge more to cover the cost of the extra sorting.) Dario dropped by the warehouse, saw the “huge and beautiful” potatoes, and had a vision. He bought the entire lot and began promoting “baked Idaho potatoes” at his restaurants. Toffenetti’s enthusiastic marketing further added to the premium identity of the Idaho® potato.

For over a quarter century Joe was "the face" of Idaho® potatoes, and, in 1940, the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association award him the title of "Potato King." Two years after he died in January 1964, the UI potato facility in Aberdeen was named the "Joe Marshall Potato Research Center" in his honor.
References: [B&W]
James W. Davis, Aristocrat in Burlap: A History of the Potato in Idaho, Idaho Potato Commission, Boise (1992).


  1. Thank you for this post. Joe Marshall was my great grandfather. Growing up in the Magic Valley, I got to see his impact on farmers across the area. Although he had passed on before I was born, his legacy still lives on.

  2. Thank you for this wonderful story about my great grandfather. He continues to serve as an inspiration in our family and I hope for others as well.

  3. This was truly inspiring. he has left such an impact on Idaho