J.R. Simplot has passion. He is a visionary. And he's a lot like
John Wayne in "Red River." As the movie cowboy surveys a huge
domain, with hands on hips, hat tilted back, he says, "This is
mine!" The potato cowboy of Idaho has pretty much the same view.
© 1998 By C.J. Hadley
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John Richard Simplot likes big. "J.R." is big. He embraces power,
wears it well and is ruthless when it comes to what he wants.
He is blessed with an enormous talent for business.
It is 6 a.m., and we are at breakfast at the Idanha Hotel in
Boise. I'm allowed a "short" interview. He talks briefly about
his father, Charles Richard Simplot, a farmer who left Iowa to
homestead in Idaho in 1909. Charles brought pigs, chickens and
horses in two box cars and settled near Declo. He brought his
wife, Dorothy, and three young children (of what would be six),
including one-year-old John Richard.
J.R., even as a kid, always seemed to know how to take advantage
of an opportunity. Eight decades ago, when he was about nine years
old, he was raising lambs. "There was an old sheep man lived half
a mile from us, down on the crick," he says. "I'd come home nights
from school and he'd give me a bum lamb. I'd help him around the
sheds for a while, even though I had to get home to milk my own
cows. I got 22 bum lambs. My mother put curtains up on the front
porch of our house and made a place to feed 'em and take care
of 'em. Protected 'em from the cold."
He says his "real" start in business came at age 14, after
he quit school and moved into Declo's Enyeart Hotel. At that time,
nobody wanted hogs and there were plenty for sale. J.R. took it
upon himself to start trading pigs and cattle, "and any damn
thing I could to make a livin' at." He figured the hogs were being
practically given away, at about a buck a head, so he went to
his father. "Dad," he said, "these hogs are so cheap I want a
place to feed a bunch of 'em." His father had a few acres down
on a creek and helped J.R. build a cooker and pens. "I bought
all the lumber. He never put a nickel into nothin'. Nobody ever
put a nickel in my brig and I got a big trunk of 'em now."
It was 1923-the land empty and wide open-and he had seen wild
horses out on the Owyhee Desert, "runnin' by the hundreds. I'd
go out and knock a couple over with a rifle and jerk the hides
off 'em with my pickup." He got arrested for shooting a few with
brands on, "but I settled with the guy and we got along." He got
two bucks for the hide and then he'd haul the carcass into town
and feed them to his pigs.
The cooker held about three tons of potatoes and he fed spuds
and horse meat to the pigs. His fuel was sagebrush and a little
coal. At one time he had about 600 hogs. "In the spring when we
had a hot market, I sold those damn hogs for seven cents a pound!"
That was unheard of in those days and he got a check for $7,000.
"That made me," he says with a satisfied grin. "That made me."
With the money, he bought six head of horses, farm machinery
and a car. He built a little box on the end of his Model T and
put a two-speed rear axle in it, "gatherin' junk and workin' at
nights." He bought old batteries, anything he could salvage at
the junkyard. He kept busy. He says he became a pretty good horse
trader, still in his teens, matching horses with farmers who wanted
to trade up. He leased 120 acres and became a farmer. Potatoes.
Beans. Hay. "I was a good farmer. I ran one of the better farms
in the area."
After three years, he sold the horses and the machinery and
stayed in the potato business. Cull potatoes weren't good enough
so he furnished certified seed to the growers, buying by the carloads
and taking 10 bags out to his potential customers. "I told 'em,
'You keep the sprouts off that damn stuff somehow or 'nother,
keep 'em cool, turn 'em over, and plant 'em on the 10th of June.
If you do, you'll raise yourself some good seed.' They did. And
that's how Idaho got a jump on the potato world. I helped 'em."
Nothing scares J.R. "We got into mining-the phosphate business-and
made our own fertilizer. We're big in frozen vegetables-the biggest
in America. Isn't that a coincidence?"
He's thinking of the old days, and looks at his hands: "Look
at that finger. I lost the end of it in a pulley, can't remember
how old I was, probably two or three." They were eight miles from
the nearest doctor and his dad hitched the team to the wagon and
took J.R. to town. "The doc said, 'If you'd picked up that piece
I could'a put it back on,' and my Dad said, 'Well, I looked for
it but the chickens had eaten it!'"
J.R. laughs. He's got a lot to laugh about. Everything he remembers
sounds good to him. "I bought 18 ranches one day from a mortgage
company. I was buying potatoes from a big fat guy and he wanted
to go back home. He wanted me to take over the mortgage. I didn't
have to pay a hell of a lot down but took those ranches and sold
them back to the neighbors. And I took potatoes in payment."
By 1940 he had 33 potato warehouses. Three years later he was
shipping 5,000 railcars of spuds. The war meant opportunity to
Simplot. He supplied dehydrated food to the military, first onions,
then (and after much experimentation by his chemists) potatoes.
By 1945, more than 50 million pounds of spuds were being used
by the military and, of 156 companies supplying dried food, Simplot
had one-third of the action.
There was a lot of potato waste from the dehydration plant
in Caldwell so J.R. established a 2,000-hog feedlot next door.
It didn't take Simplot long to figure it was more beneficial to
feed the waste to cattle.
His first big ranch, bought in 1943, was the Bruneau Sheep
Company. It had 12,000 head of ovines and a big ranch including
a lot of deeded land. This was before the Taylor Grazing Act,
forerunner to management by the federal government through the
Bureau of Land Management. "We had free rein. We took those sheep
His flocks got up to 30,000 head and he converted them to cattle.
He says he couldn't make money on sheep. "Coyotes liked 'em too
much." He bought Grand View Farms and Jamieson Farms in 1943.
The Grand View operation today is his pride and joy. "We've got
the best feedlot in the world, right there in Grand View. It's
the most profitable feedlot in the world."
In J.R.'s long memory, environmental pressure on feedlots seems
pretty recent. He admits there are problems, "but I've got lawyers
now!" He hesitates briefly, then adds, "I got by a third of my
career with no lawyers. Then I hired a lawyer about 1940 and now
I guess I got 15 or 20. I got so many I lost track of 'em."
J.R. and his ex-wife had three sons and a daughter. "Ruby was
a hell of a gal but she had life too damn easy and she fell in
love with her best friend's husband. Nobody could stop her and
there was nothing I could do about it." He was single for about
12 years and then went East to borrow $10 million from a guy in
New York. That's where he met Esther. "She wanted to be an opera
singer. I took her to a show." They married a few years later.
"We've spent $3 or $4 million for the Boise Opera since then and
built a home for the singers and the toe dancers."
For years, J.R.'s given a great deal of money away-built 20
soccer fields, eight baseball diamonds, grass hockey fields and
much more; he's supported education, and put millions into music,
ballet and opera-but he's closer to cows than to culture. He has
revolutionized the food processing business around the world.
He's particularly proud of his four food processing plants in
Mexico. "One is a two-million-pound-a-day plant. Nobody can even
touch it. There are several hundred women in each one of our plants.
We take care of their kids and we've got doctors in all these
damn places. It's something to see. They don't live on the property
but we bathe 'em every mornin', send 'em out there wearing gloves,
boots, white clothes, masks. You could eat off the floor at any
goddamn plant I have down there."
J.R. looks good at 89, his blue eyes shining. He's tall, well
built, and walking well for a guy with two new hips. He's satisfied
with life. "I've got everything I need. A big slaughterhouse.
A construction and trucking company. The biggest and most modern
cheese plant this side of the Mississippi."
Simplot talks about a chemical and fertilizer plant in Pocatello,
a food processing operation in Caldwell on 4,000 acres, and Micron
Computers in Nampa. Major divisions are Land & Livestock, Minerals
& Chemical, Food, and Diversified.
He owned a copper mine in the Dominican Republic. "I'm a gambler
in the mining business. We were drilling for copper, zinc and
sulfides in the jungle. I sent my geologist and engineer down
there. They looked for minerals, built roads, drilled test holes
and found copper. They checked for oxides and these damn oxides
run half an ounce of gold! I drilled it out and it was a hell
of a mine."
The mine paid for itself the first year. "The government took
20 percent," J.R. says. "The second year they took 45 percent
and the third year they took it all. The president told me it
was the only cash they got and they had to have it. We found it.
We developed it. They didn't have the money or the expertise.
They gave us $75 million for it but it was earning a million bucks
every damn day!"
He has always been enterprising, starting or acquiring companies
or land and livestock when he saw a need. He'll export or import,
doesn't matter which, as long as it's a benefit to the bottom
line. If he loses a few million while making a billion, that's
O.K. His major enterprises are in Idaho, but he also has had plants,
mines, mills and timber interests in California, Oregon, Nevada,
Maine, Wyoming, Mexico, China and Canada.
Breakfast is over. Time for him to go to the Micron Computer
board meeting. I asked if I could tag along. "Sure honey," he
says, "let's go get the Lincoln."
As he drives west the 30 miles to Nampa, he talks about the
country around us. "We farm 85,000 acres of our own irrigated
land and that's a lot of damn irrigated land! I grow beets, wheat,
alfalfa, onions, lot's of 'em. We're big in onions."
He likes onions almost as much as potatoes. He was already
wealthy by 1941 because of a prune drying machine he saw in Southern
California. He used it to dry onions in Idaho so that he could
ship dehydrated product to Chicago for onion powder and onion
flakes. "I met a guy in L.A. who wanted them. The deal was with
John Sokol and was pretty much a handshake. I put in a prune dryer
and we learned fast how to dry vegetables. Sokol wanted 300,000
pounds of onion powder and 200,000 pounds of flakes. I delivered,
and made $600,000 the first year I run that onion plant and that
was the first real money I ever made. From there on out, hell,
I was a millionaire."
He has hired thousands of employees, and since J.R. quit being
president in 1973, individual presidents have run each division.
He stepped down as overall president and chairman of the board
in 1994. "I built this damn business and I built it all the way
up. I had a lot of good help. I grew 'em, raised 'em all and just
kept advancin' 'em. And, by God, they've done a good job for me."
His family has been involved in it all: three sons Don, Dick (now
deceased) and Scott, and daughter Gay. He is supposed to be retired
but can't seem to keep his hands off. "They own it now, 100 percent."
He calls Micron another "opportunity." "I'm a gambler. I bought
a million dollars worth of a guy's stock and it was the best million
I ever spent. We damn near went broke two or three times and we're
not the biggest now but we will be."
There was a time when he had a robot company, "Sold out, doubled
my money. I shoulda kept it." He had a fish project. "Couldn't
raise fish. There ain't no goddamn way you can raise fish. I tried
two years and there was no way to get the nitrogen out of the
water. I mean what are ya gonna do with the water? I built the
best fish deal ever built and there's no way ya gonna raise fish
commercially. I turned it into a tomato farm. On that deal I lost
about $25 or $30 million I imagine."
Simplot was on McDonald's board for 12 years. He made another
fortune by discovering the frozen french fry.
In 1945, Ray Dunlap was a chemist at the Simplot lab in Caldwell.
He wanted J.R. to give him a freeze box so that he could practice
freezing vegetables. "Hell," J.R. told him, "you freeze spuds
and they will go to mush." He bought the guy a 10 foot box anyway
and a few months later J.R. was tasting hot french fries that
had been previously frozen. "I ate some and said, 'My God, good
product.'" They used the dip method at first, then built automatic
machines. Within six months Simplot had a 10,000-ton cold storage
facility and a 60-ton per day ice manufacturing plant. They also
made potato granules, which became "instant mashed potatoes."
He didn't try to protect his frozen french fry patent, at first.
"Hell, it was just a lawsuit you know, back in those days. Then
I got one after I met with McDonald's and gave them the patent
to get their business. I had all their business for 10 or 15 years."
After the war there was an excess of potatoes so J.R. leased
the runway at an army base and dried potatoes on the tarmac. He
smashed them with a big cat and when they dried, he shipped them
to Chicago to make liquor. "Those potatoes'd get bone dry and
all ya got left is starch. I loaded it up in boxcars and shipped
it to Chicago."
J.R. was greeted with thunderous applause at the Micron meeting
and spoke a few words. He admitted to the large crowd that he
didn't know much about computer chips, "I don't know where we're
goin' but we're certainly on our way. We've got somethin' the
world wants and 600 patents to protect it. We're gonna show the
On the drive back to Boise he said there was a helicopter standing
by to take us to Grand View to see the feedlot. "We use the helicopter
for our mining division and we use it to shoot coyotes. We like
to get the coyotes while we're calvin' on the range. We got a
lot of cattle out there." Simplot Company has eight pilots on
staff to fly a jet, two King Airs, a Cessna 185 and a Bell 206
Jet Ranger helicopter.
He waves at a truck filled with potatoes. "That's one of mine.
See the name? Simplot. Goin' over to our plant at Caldwell." The
trucks were covered. "The wind dries 'em out and if you blow some
hide off it'll turn potatoes black. We cover 'em all."
It's not surprising that the I.R.S. got interested in J.R.
at the height of his entrepreneurial dealings. "A couple of little
Italians come up out of Salt Lake and told me, 'You're gonna go
broke. You're limited to 10 percent profit on anything you're
doin' here. You can't possibly pay for the things you're building.'
So we formed 52 partnerships. It was complicated but I got myself
some cash. I'd let them make money, they'd pay the taxes, and
we'd leave the money in the companies. It worked good. Then the
I.R.S. put 28 auditors on my damn account for four years."
He was using bookkeepers, no accountants, and "I took money
outta here and put money over there if I need it, ya know. I mixed
it all up and they come in and said, 'Nobody can do what you did.'
But I did it."
They fined him $1.5 million. He laughs. "They never found anything
crooked, I guarantee ya, but I did move money around. I built
plants in Canada and had to have money. Damned if it wasn't cheaper
to pay the fine than to fight the damn thing."
We're coming in to downtown Boise and he waves his hand again.
"That's my ground. I own it all. Actually my kids own it now.
They bought the railroad out, got about 25 acres right up through
town here. I bought the whole damn works. Someday it will be worth
a lot of money."
He's put a lot back into Boise, but he's received plenty. "Here's
my village. I own this. Factory Outlet stores. Look at the cars
parked! There's a lot of cars in there."
He gets to the office, makes a few phone calls and takes a
nap. At 1 p.m. he can't find the helicopter pilot so decides to
drive me to Grand View.
We pass a pesticide plant that used to be in Boise until the
pressure got so intense he moved it out to the country. "Come
ta find out I was under the same damn rules 'cuz it was still
in Ada County! I couldn't get out from under the goddamn same
sonsabitches that made me move it outta Boise!" He moved it again,
to Elmore County, and their officials put in a road for him and
named it Simco. "They wanted to call it Simplot Road but I said
ta hell with that."
Simplot Company irrigates tens of thousands of acres of vegetables
and grains and new environmental standards are changing the old
ways and rules. "They are putting the heat on me. I was dumpin'
in the river for years and years and I got by in good shape but
now I've spent millions cleanin' the water up. I did it in Washington.
I had to do it in Oregon. It's the law of the land now. Mighta
killed a few fish and suckers but never hurt anything. They're
blowin' holes around the feedlot in Washington to see if I'm pollutin'
the goddamn water. Maybe we won't be able to feed cattle anywhere
any more, I don't know. The problem is there's too many goddamn
regulations. Now, if you build a manger you got to go to town
and ask 'em for permission to do it."
Rows of potatoes stretch for miles in every direction. They
look healthy. Sprinklers are pumping water across the flat. "If
you've grown 'em as long as I have, you don't make any mistakes.
It's early country. Hell, this is paradise I'm tellin' ya!"
Grand View, Idaho, is the old man's favorite place in the world.
He used to drive small trucks full of spuds to Mountain Home from
Grand View. Now he just likes to visit. The feedlot holds 110,000
head of cattle and it is one hell of a sight. There's a three
mile buffer zone around it because of the smell. The livestock
eat potato waste, hay, haylege and grain and Simplot buys grain
by the trainload. The company has 400 trucks on the road, constantly
moving goods around. When I asked why he had his own cow/calf
outfits out on the range when the western ranching business is
so tough, he said, "Honey, I love the land and I just love the
cow. Don't make a lot of money in that but I like it."
There is money in feeding cattle, certainly more than growing
calves. The four Simplot feedlots have an annual capacity of 600,000
head, which represents 750 million pounds of beef. Simplot has
ranches in California, Idaho, Nevada, Utah and Oregon. Twelve
ranches in six western states contribute more than 25,000 animals
to the company's feedlot system. The ag group farms more than
76,000 acres of land producing potatoes, alfalfa, corn, asparagus,
onions, sugar beets, wheat and barley. Hay and grains raised on
the farm supply part of the feedlots' needs. Simplot's Idaho farms
are in Caldwell, Howe, Declo, Grand View and Murtaugh; he also
has farms in Pasco, Wash. and Paisley, Ore. Simplot is the largest
supplier of cattle in the Pacific Northwest and is fourth largest
in the nation. The company owns leases on several million acres
of public land. And he's always looking for more.
Simplot Company recently bought the ZX Ranch, which runs 15,000
head of cattle on more than a million acres of private and public
land out of Paisley, Ore. "You couldn't buy that from me for five
times what I paid for it. It is not just a ranch. It's an empire!"
Tom Basabe runs Simplot's Land and Livestock Division. He's
45, lives in Grand View at the feedlot, and has only had one job
in his life-working for Simplot. His father, the late John Basabe,
helped build the feedlot and the ranches with J.R. They were the
best of friends.
Tom buys 4-5,000 head of cattle a week. His crew feeds 1,400
tons of feed a day and close to 900 tons of corn. Two cooks in
the cookhouse serve 20-25 feedlot employees three meals a day,
seven days a week. ("That's the toughest job in this feedlot,"
says Tom.) Bedding for cattle is wood chips, because, says J.R.,
"they need a dry place to lay."
Ranches are scattered all over the West and when the calves
are weaned they are taken to the closest feedlot. "This is probably
the best feeding operation in the entire world," says Tom of Grand
View, "because of climate. We only get six inches of rainfall
The cattle are on computers. Each pen shows where the livestock
came from, who sold it, what it cost, how much in freight, if
there were sick cattle (which will be deducted from the invoice).
Sprinklers are on during hot days to keep the dust down. "Keeps
the neighbors happy. Keeps the cattle cool. Keeps the respiratory
problems down on the animals."
Grand View ships 50,000 head of cattle to Japan annually. "They
like extended-fed; blacks. They want 'em heavily marbled and all
the fat we can put on 'em," Tom says. "It's 180 degrees off the
American consumer." When asked why, Tom says, "They're tired of
rice. They like taste. They like tenderness and flavor."
The man Idaho natives tenderly call "Mr. Spud" has been busy
for more than 80 years, and he's still involved, at the age of
89. "On most days," Tom says, "bullets bounce off his chest."
J.R. Simplot is a farmer--the king, emperor and sheik of spuds.
He likes his ranches also, but it's not the same. "The cattle
business is tough, but I don't have ta depend on the damn ranches
to live. I never have. That's why I can stay in the business,
keep improvin' 'em and burying money down there and makin' 'em
better. It's a tough, tough damn racket."
He doesn't think people in town understand what it takes to
be a rancher. "They always think that we're parasites on Uncle
Sam's land but we own the rights to graze. We were there when
they made the law that entitles us to those rights."
After driving around the 14,000-acre farm, and passing a few
ranches J.R. wants to buy, we head back to Boise.
"You wanna stop at McDonald's? Have dinner with me honey?"
Why, sure, J.R. We stop in Mountain Home and he strides in,
orders drinks and fries, and says to the pimply youth behind the
counter: "I'm the old man Simplot. I supply 80 percent of the
spuds and most of the meat to this outfit."
The dude says, "Great."
I think about what J.R. Simplot's done with his life. How many
people he's employed and made rich. How many ventures he's won
and lost. How he's always seemed to be out front, and never quit,
no matter how tough things got. I wonder how does he make $3 million
a day? "Last quarter we made $225 million!" And I wonder why Peter
Jennings, on ABC Nightly News last year, used J.R. Simplot as
a "typical" public lands rancher. Jennings should know that J.R.'s
not typical of anyone or anything.
There's a hill a few miles out of Boise. About 15 years ago,
J.R. rode a horse up the grassy slope and told Esther later, "Honey,
let's build a shack up here." So she built it for the two of them.
"Esther's the best thing that ever happened to me and that's all
there is," J.R. says. "We never have any overnight guests and
I'm enjoyin' it."
He flew an American flag when he moved in, 65 feet wide and
30 feet deep. It is easy to see from a plane flying in or out
of Boise. It flaps so loud in the breeze that his neighbors complain
about the noise.
He likes things that are big. He likes noise. He is noise.
He's still looking for good places to buy that he can make money
on, or make better. He is looking to grow his company-even though
he is not the hands-on chief any longer.
"I gotta big rig ta run," he says with another big Cheshire
cat smile, eyes sparkling. "It's good and it's real and it's pretty
well paid for. I've got it in a trust that won't trigger for years.
No tax. I can give dividends ta all my people...share my prosperity."
J.R. Simplot has made one hell of a mark, in Idaho, in the
West, in the world. He's a few times over billionaire these days
and he's easy to spot in his Lincoln Continental with the "Mr.
Spud" license plates. He admits that with the growth of his multitude
of diverse companies that he didn't do all the thinking, but he
did make the decisions.
"I'm old and I'm tryin' to quit; there's no question about
that," he says. "I got the biggest ranches, biggest farms, biggest
trucks, biggest tractors, biggest scoops, and I'm pleased with
it all. But, honey, it took a long time ta get there."
* * *
C. J. Hadley is publisher/editor of RANGE magazine. "I learned
a lot when I worked in New York," she says, "and more when I got
to the West in '72. But J.R. put me in a state of acute, rural
amazement. Thanks to J.R., that '30-minute' interview turned out
to be one delightful and inspired day."