50 for 50: Nathan Gellert

Published online: Jun 07, 2021 50 for 50 Tyrell Marchant, Editor
Viewed 441 time(s)
Throughout 2021, as part of Potato Grower’s celebration of our 50th year in publication, we will be honoring in our pages and on our website 50 of the potato industry’s most innovative and influential individuals, companies and organizations over the past half-century. This “50 for 50” series will include researchers, salesmen, packers, processors and, of course, plenty of potato growers. A lot of them will be names you’ve heard before. To some, you’ll get a fresh introduction. Regardless, each has had an outsize impact on the U.S. potato industry, and each deserves our thanks and recognition. To view the full roster of “50 for 50” honorees, click here
This article appears in the June 2021 issue of Potato Grower.

“Legend has it…”

“As the story goes…”

The tales of a lot of pioneers begin this way. Archimedes. Davy Crockett. The Wright brothers. Add Nathan Gellert to that list. The founder of the Gellert Company was objectively, undeniably an absolute trailblazer for the potato industry.

As the story goes, in the early 1960s, Gellert was in the midst of a successful engineering career in the oil and gas industry in western Washington. One weekend, he made the drive to Moscow, Idaho, to visit his son Hank, then a student at the University of Idaho. During his time on campus, he happened to wander into a demonstration on effective potato storage. The common practice in those days was to store potatoes in a dug-out cellar under a dirt A-frame roof with straw on top. There was virtually no thought put into ventilation, humidification, or any type of climate control at all. As Gellert — who had absolutely no experience nor expertise in the potato industry — observed that presentation, he thought, “There are a whole lot of better ways to do this.”

“It was that moment when Nathan Gellert simply started pioneering an entirely new potato storage industry,” says Eric Evans, current president of Agri-Stor, the umbrella company under which the Gellert Company operates today.

In 1964, Gellert moved to Boise, Idaho, and founded his eponymous company, engineering ventilation and climate control systems for potato storage. With no prior background in potatoes or any other area of agriculture, Gellert utilized his training in engineering and his own God-given mind for mathematical innovation to start a revolution in the industry.

Nathan Gellert, right, inspects a potato storage with Warren Shillington, owner of Chemical Supply Company, in 1974. 

“Literally everything we do in potato storage today with regard to climate control was pioneered by Nathan Gellert,” says Evans.

A prime example of Gellert’s brilliance was his realization of the importance of removing field heat from potatoes as soon as possible when they go into storage. He was instrumental in teaching the industry that immediately after harvest, those potatoes needed huge amounts of air, but that they need considerably less air once they were down to temperature.

Evans’s family bought the Gellert Company in 1994, and Evans only met Gellert a couple times before his death. But Gellert’s influence is still acutely felt in the company he founded and the industry he grew to love. A few years ago, Evans says he came across some of Gellert’s original, handwritten notebooks from those early days. As he browsed through, it struck him how applicable so much of Gellert’s original principles remain, more than a half-century later.

“He did all these mental gymnastics—not just developing technology, but trying to pioneer a whole new industry,” says Evans. “Even with the modern speed of innovation, we’re still using a lot of the same engineering principles throughout the industry. Sixty years ago, he did it right.”