J.R. Simplot of Boise, Idaho, is one of the world's wealthiest people. He began his career as a progressive potato grower who had absorbed many of the lessons of Idaho's earlier potato-farming innovators. To reduce potato diseases, Simplot grew potatoes only from certified seed, for example. Then he went on to advance the possibilities in new product development, economies of scale, vertical integration, and company research.
Simplot innovated the use of chemical fertilizer as a substitute for crop rotation. He was an early user of the electric potato sorter. A farmer could dump the potatoes on a conveyor belt, allowing people on each side to sort, while others at the end could bag and load. Since the machine was portable, he could train a crew, take the whole package to a farmer's potato cellar, plug it into a light bulb socket, do the work, and move on to the next cellar.
Simplot recalls his start in the potato business in an Idaho town named Declo.
I left school at fourteen and got me a room in a rooming house in Declo. I built it all from there. Nobody ever put a penny in my company, not one red cent. I did it by taking care of business, I guess. That's what my job was. And it was tough, tough, tough.
When I moved to that hotel, I had a few dollars. I was just a kid, but times were tough. There were eight or ten school teachers living there and getting about forty dollars every two weeks, paid in warrants. They weren't checks, just an IOU. They didn't have any money because the school districts didn't have any money. Well, I bought those warrants for about fifty cents on the dollar from those teachers. I would take them to town, and the bank would give me face value for them and honor my note. I secured my note with these warrants. That's really how I got started in the potato business.
I had left home...[but] Dad helped me build a pig pen. We built a hell of a pig pen, I'm telling you. We built a great big cooker. It held about two or three tons of potatoes and two horses. I'd go out in the desert and shoot a wild horse or two, jerk the hide off of them, and bring them back in and cook them with the potatoes. I fattened those hogs on horse meat and cooked potatoes. In the spring, when I bought those hogs, you could get them for nothing. I fed them all winter and I worked like hell.
The next spring we had a hot hog market. I sold those damn hogs for seven cents a pound. That was more than hogs had brought for years. The check was $7,800. That was a fortune. And that's what got me started. I bought me eight head of horses and a line of farm machinery and went to farming. I leased 120 acres from Lindsey Maggert and planted potatoes, beans, hay and grain.
We bought our seed potatoes from a farmer in Ashton, Idaho. Maggert and I...bought this electric potato sorter on a joint account. They shipped it down to Declo in a box car. I unloaded it and went to sorting potatoes. A close friend of Maggert complained because I was sorting all the neighbors' potatoes around there. So Maggert came out one day, early in the spring, and said, "Jack, you have to put up that potato sorter." I said, "I made a promise to sort potatoes for these people. It's obligated." He said, "You don't need to worry about it, it's time to go to farming anyway." So, we got in a little argument. I said, "Well, there is only one way to settle this thing, Lindsey. Let's just flip a dollar and see who owns it." He pulled a dollar out of his pocket. He flips it up in the air and I call it. He turns around and walks off, grumbling. That put me in the potato sorting business, and I grew from there.
If I hadn't won that sorter, it could have changed my whole career because I would have gone back to farming, I guess. Or I may have gone and bought another one, I don't know. That was one of the turning points. I've had two or three like that in my life.
I wasn't a detail man. I didn't have any education. I had a hell of a time billing and routing cars. I worked day and night on those things when I was doing them alone, and then I hired a fellow by the name of Burdell Curtis. He was a schoolteacher who could type and take shorthand. I got him and then I started to go. I could do the trading and he did the detail...
Then the war came on. We got in the onion drying business. The real money, the first money I ever made that amounted to anything, was when I got into the onion dehydration business. The first month we ran that onion plant we made fifty thousand dollars clear. That was more money than we ever made in a year...
The Army sent a colonel by the name of Logan. He said, "Simplot, you are going to work for the Army. You're going to dry vegetables..." I said, "Fine, give me the tickets and I'll do them the best I know how." That got me in the dehydration business in a big way. I built plants all over America--Maine, North Dakota, Colorado, California, Oregon... I finally wound up supplying more potatoes to the Army than anyone else. That led into the fertilizer business. I had to have fertilizer to grow the potatoes, and I couldn't buy any. So I decided to make some. And I did.
I didn't start out big. The future is not ours to see and it never has been. But looking back, how did I get big in the potato business? I guess I worked at it. I got more cellars. I got more good people working at the same job, and we made a success out of it.
Andrus | Baker | Hayashida | Hill | Laird | Nelson | Oliver
Simplot | Slickpoo | Sorrels | Trice | Zabala