Idaho’s Russet Burbank Powerhouse: Inside GPOD’s Russet Burbank Empire

GPOD Potatoes, established in 1968, represents the heart of potato farming in Shelley, Idaho. With a focus on the renowned Russet Burbank variety, GPOD has built a reputation for delivering quality produce to retailers, food service wholesalers and terminal markets across the United States. We spoke to Calvin Butler who as part of the dedicated sales team, contributes to expanding GPOD’s reach, ensuring their potatoes, known for their storage longevity and versatility, find their way to tables countrywide. Embracing sustainable practices and OU Kosher certification, GPOD Potatoes are a testament to the industry’s commitment to tradition and quality.  

OU Kosher: Can you give an overview of the organization, its history, and your role? 

Calvin Butler: Our company started in 1968 in a small warehouse in Idaho Falls. By 1971, we moved to Shelley, Idaho, which is about nine miles south of Idaho Falls. Initially, a partnership between a businessman and a group of growers was formed with the objective to market their Idaho potatoes. This led to the creation of GPOD of Idaho. The name comes from the acronym General Potato and Onion Distributors. Although we no longer distribute onions, we’ve retained the original name for its recognizability, such as in our oval logo on our orange boxes which is recognised by buyers. Our prime product is the Russet Burbank potato, Idaho’s original heirloom variety. A variety particularly known for its storage longevity and versatility, which has contributed significantly to Idaho’s fame in the potato industry. 

OU Kosher: Who are your customers? 

Calvin Butler: We sell mostly to food service wholesalers and terminal markets, which distribute our fresh Russet Burbank potatoes to retailers and food service entities. Our potatoes are shipped nationally, with a strong presence in the Northeast United States. While the majority of our transportation is done via railroads such as Union Pacific, CSX, and Norfolk Southern, our customers also have over the road trucks to transport our finished products.  

OU Kosher: Why are you Kosher certified? 

Calvin Butler: The decision for Kosher certification was driven by our large customer base in the New York metropolitan area. Our food safety protocols, sanitation and handling practices, aligned with the Kosher requirements, led to us obtaining the certification. An annual audit is conducted to ensure ongoing compliance. The Orthodox Union (OU) certification was specifically requested by our marketplace clientele and after meeting the necessary standards, we were granted permission to display the OU symbol on our packaging. 

OU Kosher: What aspects of your process required attention for Kosher certification? 

Calvin Butler: The audit focused on our handling process, from the field through storage and into our facility. This included how the potatoes are sized, sorted, and packaged. The machinery used in our facility is dedicated solely to processing the potatoes, which is a crucial factor in maintaining Kosher certification. This stringent adherence ensures there is no cross-contamination with non-kosher substances. 

OU Kosher: Can you elaborate on your company’s focus on processing only Russet Burbank potatoes and the associated processes? 

Calvin Butler: We handle exclusively fresh Russet Burbank potatoes, not allowing any other produce blend. All paperwork reflects this sole focus, and we have a dedicated food safety director on-site managing paperwork, audits, and marketing processes connected to our sales. 

OU Kosher: Do prospective buyers inquire about sustainability in your transportation methods? 

Calvin Butler: Buyers occasionally ask about sustainability, particularly how we transport our potatoes. We are proud of our partnership with the rail system, which allows us to transport our potatoes across the country in the most sustainable way currently available to us. This method, using sizable rail cars is equivalent to four truckload volume. This is considered the most sustainable logistical means, minimizing our environmental footprint. 

OU Kosher: How does your company manage water usage and sustainability? 

Calvin Butler: We use a rotational water supply sourced from certified clean well groundwater. Our employees are water-certified, attending classes at least once a year to ensure the water is handled properly. We use the water for multiple processes throughout the day as long as its quality is maintained.  

OU Kosher: Are you aware of the brands that use your potatoes, for example, in potato chips or other retail products? 

Calvin Butler: Our Russet Burbank potatoes are primarily used in retail applications and by grocery store chains. Many premium restaurants and the food service industry use GPOD potatoes, hotels, schools, and other institutions are also customers. During Passover, for example, they’re used for potato starch due to dietary restrictions. In Anthony Bourdain’s, ‘Les Halles Cookbook’, GPOD is endorsed as the perfect potato for fry-dom, making French fries. The GPOD Russet Burbank potato is highlighted on many well-known restaurant menus. 

OU Kosher: How does your company acquire new customers? 

Calvin Butler: Word of mouth plays a role in acquiring new customers, and as the sales representative, it’s my job to reach out to potential clients. Our relationship with culinary institutes and chefs who have used our potatoes in their training often leads them to request our potatoes for their establishments across the country, valuing the quality and consistency of the Russet Burbank variety.  

OU Kosher: Is the Russet Burbank a branded or copyrighted potato? 

Calvin Butler: The Russet Burbank is not a branded or copyrighted potato. However, the GPOD brand is trademarked. It is one variety among many Russets, known for its white flesh and brown skin. The Idaho Potato Commission’s website provides information on the famous Idaho potato. The “Idaho” name is copyrighted, by the IPC. They are also responsible for marketing and promotion.  

OU Kosher: How does supply impact your business operations and customer acquisition? 

Calvin Butler: Our supply is directly tied to how many acres are planted and how well the crops grow, which is dictated by nature. Harvest yields that exceed or fall short of expectations prompt us to seek new places to send our potatoes or adjust our sales efforts accordingly. Our inventory fluctuates due to natural variables, and we are constantly adapting to the supply situation. 

OU Kosher: When do you determine the acreage and yield for the season? 

Calvin Butler: Planting in our region typically starts in mid-April and continues through mid-May. By around June or July, we get a clear picture of the acreage planted. We can estimate yields based on average production per acre and adjust for variations caused by Mother Nature. 

OU Kosher: How do you anticipate the impact of climate on your crop yield? 

Calvin Butler: We closely monitor the climate, particularly our snowpack and water content, which indicate whether we will have sufficient water for the season. Climate conditions like a warmer or wetter spring are also considered when deciding to plant more or less acres. These decisions can pivot quickly depending on sudden weather changes. 

OU Kosher: Can you explain the significance of Idaho’s climate and soil to potato farming? 

Calvin Butler: Idaho’s unique climate, with warm days and cool nights, along with our rich volcanic soil that’s high in nutrients and  is ideal for growing potatoes. This combination is part of what makes Idaho famous for its potatoes, contributing to the state’s agricultural success. 

OU Kosher: As someone deeply connected to the farming process, do you personally enjoy potatoes? 

Calvin Butler: Absolutely, I enjoy potatoes and frequently eat them. Just last night, I had a delicious dish of scalloped potatoes made by my wife. It’s not just business; it’s a personal preference, and I appreciate the quality of the GPOD Russet Burbank Idaho potatoes grown.