Jill Johnson is giving away mountains of potatoes.
The third-generation potato farmer — like farmers all across the world — has had her season upended because of the pandemic. With schools shut down and restaurants closed, the agricultural supply chain has been disrupted to the point that farmers are being forced to dump crops even while grocery stores run dry and lines for food banks stretch longer.
Johnson’s family farm in Picabo, Idaho, is located near Sun Valley, Hailey and Ketchum — playgrounds for the rich and famous. As a result, the county emerged as a hot spot for coronavirus cases after tourists flocked to the area. Earlier this month, the region was suffering from a higher infection rate than New York City.
Even though the majority of their crop was accounted for, about 10 days ago, the Johnsons’ farm manager, Teagan Foster, posted a picture of a hill of potatoes to claim so the farmers wouldn’t have dump them. Johnson shared the post, to her own page and one for her church.
Then people started coming.
On April 17, Johnson’s husband, Mark, put 40,000 pounds of potatoes on a tractor, and they we gone within a few days. In the days since, they’ve given away 150,000 pounds of potatoes.
Last week, word got out to Idaho resident Molly Page. She tweeted a photo of the potato pile, which prompted 5,200 replies.
“People in our county were saying, ‘I don’t know where Picabo is, I don’t know how to get there,’ or they just might not have the gas money to go there right now. So I talked to some friends, and said, ‘Hey, let’s get some trucks and fill them up.”
This is where Page’s background in community organizing came in handy. One of her friends knew someone with a dump truck, which meant they could bring back larger quantities to Hailey — where she lives — and neighboring Ketchum.
Within days, she rallied 25 people for the great “potato rescue.” Page says they were able to retrieve about 8,000 pounds of potatoes to redistribute.
After dumping the potatoes in a field next to the police station in Hailey, she posted on Facebook to alert community members. Within 10 minutes, Page said, people began to arrive. A steady stream of five to 10 cars persisted through the weekend.
“Some people took three potatoes and others took two boxes worth,” Page said. She remembers the second woman who showed up “was in tears.”
By Monday, when Page and some volunteers went to clean up, the potatoes were gone.
“I couldn't believe it, I thought it would take a week,” she said.
She plans on organizing another rescue this weekend, and expanding drop-off to other neighboring towns, if she can.
To understand the scale of the supply chain, a farm like the Johnsons’ is the first step toward your french fries.
Their crops are sold to other farms, who then sell their potatoes to restaurants or food processors.
Even though there is still enough demand to pass on the majority of their potatoes — and keep them in business and their staff employed — supply chain disruptions still leave mountains of spuds that could potentially go to waste. For maximum efficiency and integrity of their yield, they need to rotate crops, and they can’t just leave the potatoes in the field. These are where those haunting images of languishing crops come into play.
“It makes us feel better that the loss we’re taking is somehow worth it,” Johnson said. “It will be tight but farmers take their losses on a yearly basis. That’s just the risk you take.”
Johnson said people had offered to buy their potatoes but they weren’t accepting money for them. Their reach is extending farther than she expected. Someone from Seattle is working on using his own truck to pick up potatoes to take to a food bank in his neighborhood.
For her family, the virus has truly hit home. In March, multiple members of their household fell sick.
Johnson tears up when she thinks about the friends and neighbors who stopped by with food and groceries. “It takes a mental toll on you, worrying about getting someone else sick, if you’ll have to go the hospital, if they’ll have a bed for you.”
“We just need to band together and make sure we get through this. ... It’s the only way, to be more caring and compassionate and bring more love and honor into the world.”