Inaugural Potato Days festival draws 12,000 people
By Sean Ellis
Idaho Farm Bureau Federation
MERIDIAN – An estimated 12,000 people showed up to celebrate the famous Idaho potato in the heart of Idaho’s main population center Sept. 22-23.
The goal of the Potato Days event was to eventually hold the largest public celebration of the potato in Idaho and it may have come close during its inaugural year.
Shelley Spud Days attracts a similar number of people in Bingham County, which is the epicenter of potato production in Idaho and the United States.
That event is held in the rural town of Shelley, while the goal of the Potato Days event was to allow city folks to celebrate the state’s most iconic product as well, according to organizer Thomas Watson.
“We just wanted to emphasize the potato in the city and treat it the same way we treat the tech industry and other big industries,” he said.
After doing an internet search, Watson, co-owner of Roots Family History, a Boise print and frame shop, realized there were no potato celebrations in the Boise area.
“We need to celebrate the potato right here in the city,” he said. “We need a huge celebration, right here, of the potato, the thing that produces almost more income for the state than anything else.”
Watson said the potato industry may not be as flashy as the high-tech industry but it’s just as important and brings in billions of dollars to the state each year.
“I just don’t think we think about the potato the same way we do (about the high-tech industry) but we should,” he said. “The potato is a tech company. A really, really big tech company. A $13 billion a year tech company and we don’t think about it like that at all. But it is.”
The event was held in Kleiner Memorial Park just across from The Village in Meridian.
Potato Days included dozens of potato-themed games such as potato sack races, potato limbo, potato darts and potato trick shots, and potato dishes, and the free prizes awarded for playing the games were potato-oriented.
The Big Idaho Potato Truck, which hauls a gigantic potato around the nation, was parked at the event and a constant stream of people had their pictures taken in front of it.
The giant potato used in the Idaho Potato Drop on New Year’s Eve was also there, and Spuddy Buddy, the Idaho Potato Commission mascot, attended the event as well.
It included potato sidewalk chalk art by dozens of local artists, a French-fry competition, live bands, carnival games, a vendor area, bubble garden and bouncy houses.
“It’s new to this side of the state to be celebrating the Idaho potato like this but this event is exciting,” IPC President and CEO Jamey Higham said while attending Potato Days. “We’re big supporters of it.”
He said it’s a good sign to see the spud being celebrated in the middle of Idaho’s largest population center.
“I remember about 20 years ago there was a bit of a movement by some people to … distance ourselves from the potato,” he said. “But it’s made a resurgence lately. I think people take it as a source of pride that we’re famous for our potatoes.”
Watson grew up near Kimberly in southcentral Idaho and was surrounded by potato fields but wasn’t involved in farming himself. However, he recognizes the important contribution that potatoes make to the state’s way of life and economy.
He believes the potato isn’t getting the recognition it should in the Boise-Meridian area, which is one of the fastest-growing regions in the United States on a percentage basis.
“We just don’t appreciate what we actually have and that’s a sour point for me,” he said. “We need to make the potato cool in the city. We want the industry to be as cool as the tech industry.”
Watson said the event was one that needed to happen in the Boise area, whether it was him or someone else organizing it.
“I don’t deserve to be doing this,” he said. “The reason I am doing this is because nobody else is.
Watson said he and others involved in organizing the event would have been happy to have drawn 1,000 people during the event’s first year.
But as thousands of people began flowing into Kleiner Memorial Park shortly after the event started on Sept. 23, a Saturday, it became apparent Potato Days had taken on a life of its own during its first year.
“This has been a crazy undertaking; way beyond what I imagined,” Watson said, adding that the 12,000 attendance total is “way more than we expected on year one and it’s all because this is a potato event. I think had we called it something else and been celebrating something else, this wouldn’t have happened. The community wants a potato days event.”
He credits the state’s potato industry, including the Idaho Potato Commission, for helping make the event a success. The IPC and industry made substantial donations to Potato Days, including providing the potato-related prizes given away for free.
“The donations are insane. We got way more than we expected,” Watson said. “The potato industry really came through for us.”
Idaho Farm Bureau Federation President Bryan Searle applauded organizers of the event and was happy to hear it will be an annual celebration.
“Wow! What an incredible event,” said Searle, a potato farmer from Shelley. “We applaud the people who created this family-oriented celebration of the humble potato. It’s incredibly satisfying to see city folks embrace the Idaho potato.”
Watson said a main focus of Potato Days was free family fun, all centered around a gigantic celebration of the Idaho potato.
“If you live in the city, this is not the kind of thing kids see a lot,” he said. “This is a chance to get them off (of video games and the Internet) and come to an actual event where everything’s free and they’re all having fun.”
“I would have been just as happy if someone else had done this event,” he added. “I just want it to exist.”
He said the event in future years hopes to add other traditional events like arm wrestling and log-pulling and next year it will attempt to break the world record for largest pinata ever built.
“We want this to feel like good, old-fashioned family fun, but all in celebration of the potato,” Watson said.
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