The potato industry lost one of its most prominent names in May when J.R. Simplot passed away at the age of 99.
Few people have seen firsthand the development and growth of the U.S. potato industry, and J.R. left his mark on the industry in many ways. He went into business at the age of 14 and started his first produce business at the age of 20. He built his first dehydrating plant in 1941, just in time to begin supplying the military with dehydrated potatoes during World War II. Also during the war, J.R. started what is now Simplot Grower Solutions to help other farmers get the fertilizers they needed.
Those businesses continued to grow, as did other Simplot ventures. In the late 1960’s Simplot began processing fries for McDonald’s, a relationship that has continued for decades, including the addition of a fry plant in China to supply the fast-food chain’s global expansions.
Although he officially retired in 1973 and stepped down as chairman of the board of directors in 1994, he remained involved in the company and the potato industry. Those who attended the 2006 World Potato Congress in Idaho had the chance to see J.R. at the opening gala sponsored by Simplot. Even in his late 90s he came out to celebrate the potato industry with the congress attendees.
There’s little doubt that J.R. was an outstanding businessman. His many ventures still live on today, including non-agricultural businesses like Micron Technology a computer chip manufacturer he helped start in 1980. But J.R. believed in making things better, not just making a quick buck. He helped convince Idaho potato growers to start using certified seed, supported Idaho’s potato advertising efforts, donated money to many colleges and philanthropic organizations and he believed in treating his employees right.
J.R. will be missed by his wife of 36 years, two sons and a daughter, 18 grandchildren, 25 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild, as well as the 10,000 employees in the companies he helped create.