Idaho Commission Building Better Big Potato

Published online: Jun 21, 2018 Articles
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Source: Idaho Statesman

Sharolyn Schofield has to get the color of a potato just right. It’s no easy thing. You can’t go to the paint counter at the hardware store and say, “Give me five gallons of potato.” Paint scanners can’t match the color of a potato skin.

So Sharolyn blends brown and yellow and black and white and red, and her final coats lighten and shade the Big Idaho Potato to burbank russet verisimilitude. And it does look lifelike: Invariably, people who see the traveling potato in New Mexico or New Hampshire ask the Idaho Potato Commission’s crew if it’s real, if it needs to be refrigerated.

“That’s our job,” says Sharolyn, “to make it look as real as possible.”

To say that Sharolyn and her husband Chris Schofield are the world’s top big potato experts is no overstatement. They have built two for the New Year’s Idaho Potato Drop and now two for the Potato Commission. The latest – a four-ton potato that will be filled with another few tons of gear and loaded onto a semi-truck trailer – will begin touring the nation Saturday, the star of the Potato Commission’s multimillion-dollar promotion efforts that will take it to 70 events this year.

Before it heads to Oregon to start its tour, Idahoans are invited to get a taste of the new Big Idaho Potato Thursday 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Albertsons store at 4700 N. Eagle Road. Laura Martin, whose Foerstel marketing firm oversees the Big Potato Truck and its travels, estimates creating the old and new potatoes cost about $200,000 each.

'Can't Get Enough of It'

Since fall, Idaho’s new Big Idaho Potato has been Schofield Designs’ full-time job. The Weiser artists/fabricators have put their other custom art work aside for the new and improved potato. “Since September, we’ve shut down everything else,” said Chris.

The first Big Idaho potato lasted six years, but it wasn’t intended to. In fact, it was envisioned as a grand gesture to celebrate the Potato Commission’s 75th anniversary in 2012, intended to last one glorious year and then — well, no one was sure there would be continuing interest in a giant brown blob of foam and concrete.

Then the potato went viral.

“We put it on the road, and the people loved it,” said Sue Kennedy, the woman in charge of the Idaho Potato Commission’s advertising account. Social media embraced The Big Idaho Potato, and its appearances at parades and festivals and store openings became Facebook and Instagram hits.

More festivals and parades asked for the potato at their celebrations, so the potato’s keepers extended its one-year lifespan to two. And those events asked the potato back, year after year. Six years on, the potato has been to 1,200 events, logged 155,000 miles and visited 7,000 cities and towns in 48 states.

“People outside of Idaho can’t get enough of it,” said Kennedy.

So, yeah, the Big Idaho Potato is, well, big.

A Potato of Comfort and Convenience

But time and the freeze/thaw cycle took their toll on the 2012 potato’s polymerized concrete skin. It weathered storms in the South and Midwest, and bitter snow in Wyoming and Nebraska. But cracks were common, and time-consuming to repair.

So the Schofields were asked to build a better big potato.

This time around, the Schofields built with fiberglass, which will be more durable and easier to repair. The 2012 model was foam on a heavy steel skeleton covered with a cement-resin – tough, as it turned out, but not decades-long tough like fiberglass.

The 2018 model is still 28 feet long and 11.5 feet tall, but it will be lighter (four vs. six tons) and skinnier (10 feet wide vs. 12). That means it can get permits to travel on more roads, can turn tighter corners and squeeze through city streets better than the old version. It also will mean less gas and wear and tear on the 72-foot-long truck and trailer.

Because the first potato was not built for the long haul, the interior wasn’t ideal for storage. Over the years, the potato was retrofitted with lockers and lights and shelves for the crew’s gear, promotional material and other potato paraphernalia.

But the new potato is being built with comfort and convenience from the start. Shelves and lockers will store gear and bikes; lights will illuminate the interior; a ventilation fan will keep the air fresh and dry, and an AC unit can be turned on when it’s hot inside. The truck’s three-person crew stays in hotels when traveling, but they change inside the potato (including putting on the Spuddy Buddy mascot costume); a curtained area at the end of the potato will offer privacy. A hydraulic opener with a remote control will make the potato hatch easier to open and close. Spuddy Buddy will have his own Plexiglas case. Six inches of insulating foam give the entire interior a mashed-potato feel.

It Takes a Team

Expert they may be at big potatoes, but the Schofields call on a team of collaborators. They got help from electrical and structural engineers, and experts on foam and fiberglass and hydraulics. The trailer designer at Western Trailer helped figure out how to build the custom flat-bed trailer so that it flexes to absorb the bumps and strains of the road so that the potato doesn’t crack (still, the potato sits on its trailer cushioned by rubber mats and attached with bolts on springs). And although both Schofields are welders (Sharolyn is a licensed structural welder), they still get assistance from the masters at Appleton Produce in Weiser.

“You can’t do it all yourself,” said Chris Schofield. “When we don’t know what we’re doing, we hire other people. We like getting a team of people together.”

Matt Pritchard is one of the Schofields’ helpers. The Weiser High grad is a student home for the summer from the University of Nebraska. “There’s not many people who can say their summer job is building a giant potato,” he said.

Exactly how do you make a giant fiberglass potato? The Schofields started by carving a full-size model out of Styrofoam, a process that took several months. On went a coat of drywall mud for potato-skin texture. Then the model was covered with a thick layer of fiberglass; when the model was removed, the shell became the mold for the final potato. Doing the fiberglass work took more months at Caldwell’s Custom Manufacturing.

'We Knew We Could Do It'

Sharolyn was born in Illinois and Chris in Virginia; they met and married in Boise. They moved their business from Boise to a sprawling shop and yard in Weiser in 2007. When Sharolyn gives you directions to get there, she finishes with: “Just look for the potato.” Once there, you realize their place is also a sort of big potato graveyard, with the models and molds of potatoes current and past lying here and there.

When they first got the Potato Commission job, the Schofields opened up a box of potatoes. They cut and sliced, studying the shape, color and structure of the potatoes. “Reverse engineering a potato,” as Chris describes it.

“My dad was an engineer and an architect,” he said. “I grew up as a kid learning how to build things. It just evolved over the years.”

Said Sharolyn Schofield: “We knew it was possible. We hadn’t figured out all the details and all the steps, but we knew we could do it.”

Their role as general contractor for the project meant they also designed and purchased the trailer on which the potato rides. They’ve done big projects before – a 75-foot welcome sign for the city of Nampa, climbing walls for gyms – but never anything as complicated as the world’s largest traveling vegetable. “We never worked on semi trucks before,” said Sharolyn.

“We like building things,” said Chris Schofield, “and what better thing to build than something that represents our state?”