By Mike McCoy
Kern County Museum
A recent visit to the Shafter Depot Museum, with a long lunch with curator Stan Wilson, yielded a great story on the heyday of the potato industry in Kern County. There was a time when our county, with a bullseye on the towns of Shafter and Wasco, were national leaders in potato cultivation. The sandy loamy soil in the area allowed for an early crop in the spring beating places like Idaho to the market place. The Shafter Long White potato was famous throughout the country and by the late 1930’s, there were 24 potato packing sheds in Shafter and more than 60 in the county.
A map in the Depot Museum shows a long line of sheds all along the rail line running right through Shafter. Hundreds of rail cars would line up every day during the busy harvest and then fill up with spuds to travel all over the country. Innovations like iced refrigerator cars extended the shelf life of the potatoes so they could hit the East Coast within 15 days. Innovative farm operations run by the Camps, Kirschenmanns, and Lehrs, worked with researchers to develop the right potato for the soil and market.
Wilson said that the sound of the sheds running full tilt during harvest was the sound of money to Shafter, Edison and Wasco. Many high school students filled the ranks of seasonal laborers and the industry hired literally a couple thousand workers during the peak of the season. Itinerant pickers would flood into town when the crop was still hand-picked. For 50 years, potatoes was one of Kern County’s top commodities.
The market though began to change. In the last 30 years, there developed an oversupply of storage potatoes in the Northwestern states of Idaho, Oregon and Washington.
These states store potatoes for months and made it difficult for the fresh potatoes in Kern County to compete with market price. When the potatoes would be harvested in Shafter, there was already a surplus of potatoes in cold storage up North. Midwestern states like Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan also began to do cold storage potatoes eliminating the East
The other negative factors that hit Kern potato growers was the increase in railroad freight charges and truck fuel costs. Railroads favor non-perishable freight over a load like potatoes that have to hit their destination within nine days. A shipping container of clothing does not put the same pressure on the railroad that a load of potatoes does. When added to higher labor costs and new governmental regulations, it meant the end for Kern potato bonanza. Growers began to cut back on acreage beginning in the 1960’s and some of the old time players began to switch land over to almonds, citrus and grapes. In 2017 for example, grapes were a $1.7 billion crop in Kern County while potatoes slipped to number eight at $112 million. In 1950, there were 65,000 acres of potatoes in Kern County and now that has dropped below 20,000 acres.
If you are over in Shafter, drop by the Depot Museum on Central Valley Highway. There is a full mechanized potato shed operation from the 1930s and lots and lots of historical photographs. It is a great story and one worth revisiting. And thank you to Stan Wilson for all of the information.