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We Are East Idaho: Aberdeen

We Are East Idaho

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EastIdahoNews.com is spending the year introducing you to places and people that make east Idaho special. In our We Are East Idaho series, we're going on a road trip and sharing things you may not know about this beautiful place we call home.

ABERDEEN — Situated amid massive tracts of rich farmland, the town of Aberdeen has everything you might expect in a small Idaho town.

The community of 2,000 people has schools, banks, parks, a grocery store, three Christian churches and a couple of homegrown sit-down restaurants.

But at its heart, Aberdeen is about agriculture.

Photo Gallery: Aberdeen

For several decades, J.R. Simplot operated a major potato processing plant on the edge of town. It closed in 2014, costing the community some 300 jobs, but Simplot still manages to have a presence in town at Simplot Grower Solutions, a retail facility for the agriculture giant.

Other potato processors, such as SunRiver of Idaho or Idaho Selects, remain among the community’s larger employers. Some in Aberdeen also work at potato and grain growing operations throughout that part of Bingham County.

The importance of agriculture in the area is perhaps most evident at the University of Idaho’s Aberdeen Research and Extension Center. Here, researchers develop new ways to grow crops that impact farmers all over the world.

Chad Jackson, the operations manager of the facility, says Aberdeen is a perfect place for the center.

“We also have a kind of unique climate and growing conditions, so having research here helps us to figure out what works and what doesn’t for local area producers,” Jackson said.

Those unique climate and growing conditions not only keep agriculture front and center in Aberdeen — they also attracted people to the region in the first place.

Aberdeen’s Mennonite heritage

As with many towns in Idaho, it was the construction of canal systems that initially brought settlers to the area. In the early 1900s, the now Aberdeen-Springfield Canal Company received a water right to take from the Snake River as part of the 1894 Carey Act.

The act passed by Congress allowed the transfer of federal land to private ownership as long irrigation was constructed. Building canals required workers, and the company began hiring many Mennonites from the Midwest.

“Mennonites historically have been very involved in agriculture,” says Pastor Kevin Chupp of First Mennonite Church. “They hired Mennonites from Kansas to help build the canal system that we utilize still. … They helped settle the town, and, of course, with them, they brought people that wanted to build a church.”

The First Mennonite Church in Aberdeen shortly after its construction in 1910 | Historical photo

Aberdeen historian Dennis Yancey believes Aberdeen wouldn’t be what it is today without the help of the Mennonite pioneers.

In Eldon and Helen Harder’s book, “Seventy-five Years at Aberdeen 1907-1982, A History of the First Mennonite Church,” the couple tells the story of about how 36 Mennonite men and women began meeting as a congregation under the direction of the Rev. Jacob Hege in 1907.

Three years later and for a price tag of about $3,000, those members constructed what became the First Mennonite Church.

Chupp said this was a “blessing” for the early Mennonites, as many of the settlers had fled Europe because of religious persecution, and because openly displaying their places of worship was against the law.

Chupp says many of the original parts of that church remain standing, including the church bell, which is still used today and calls the congregation to worship.

“It’s a beautiful thing, especially the way you see all the things that were made by hand,” Chupp says. “We are reminded of the past and reminded of the heritage. We’re really grateful for this place and our long-established roots here.”

The first Mennonite Church on West Washington Avenue in Aberdeen. While the building looks different than it did when built in 1910, portions if the original structure still stand today. | Eric Grossarth, EastIdahoNews.com

When people hear the word Mennonite and Amish they often think of those who live without modern technology, Chupp says. While the religions are both part of the Anabaptist movement, he says Aberdeen’s congregation has adapted more to modern technology while still valuing simplicity.

“As far as the community in Aberdeen, we’re just Christians that are reflecting on our heritage and reflecting primarily on just the word of God to help us navigate daily life,” Chupp says. “I don’t think people would be terribly surprised. We don’t have bonnets or plain dress or anything like that.”

Chupp says the majority of his congregation continues making a living off the area’s deep roots in agriculture.

The canal system was built in the early 1900s with the help of many Mennonite settlers. | Historical Photo

Aberdeen as a site for agricultural research

With the construction of the canal system in place, and realizing the optimal growing conditions in the area, the United States Department of Agriculture and the University of Idaho decided Aberdeen was the perfect place to establish a research center in 1911.

For more than 100 years, the center has worked primarily with small grains and potatoes to increase crop yields and grow more disease-resistant varieties.

Jackson says the work done at the center helps take the guesswork out of fighting new diseases affecting Idaho’s crops and those of farmers throughout the world.

There is also a good chance you’ve seen the impact of that research, even if you didn’t realize it.

“The varieties of potatoes that someone eats in their McDonald’s meal, their french fries — probably a pretty good chance that they had their start here,” Jackson says.

Entrance to the University of Idaho’s Aberdeen Research and Extension Center. The facility shares the campus with USDA’s National Small Grain Collection. | Eric Grossarth, EastIdahoNews.com

The potato-breeding program at the facility has been responsible for developing and promoting many new varieties of potato. One of the major ones was the potatoes used for fries in fast food.

“In terms for the average citizen, the best thing you can say it makes for cheap abundant food,” says Harold Bockelman, supervisory agronomist for the USDA at the Aberdeen Small Grains and Potato Germplasm Research Unit.

And it’s not just potatoes. Bockleman, who acts as curator of the USDA’s National Small Grains collection, says the USDA has been collecting seed samples of grains from around the world for over 100 years.

“Over time, the collection just expanded and grew, and the idea was to get a diversity of plants around the world,” Bockleman says.

Today they have over 140,000 germplasms, or living genetic tissue varieties like seeds, at the center that are used to improve grain crops worldwide.

“One of the things about the center as a whole that I think is great is we have world-class research that goes on here,” Jackson says. “There is a lot of benefit that comes from the work done here.”

Harold Bockleman shows the over 50,000 varieties of wheat germplasms the USDA’s National Small Grain Collection holds in a building in Aberdeen | Eric Grossarth, EastIdahoNews.com

Aberdeen’s future

Aberdeen has had a rough few years since Simplot closed its plant, and there have been a number of other business closures in the community.

Last year, there was an outcry when Maverik closed its 24-hour convenience store because the business wasn’t performing financially, according to KPVI.

Still, the population of Aberdeen has stayed the same, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and given the ideal conditions for farming and agricultural research, it’s likely the community will continue having an impact in Idaho for a long time.

One of the countless farms near Aberdeen. It is agriculture that built and keeps the town alive. | Eric Grossarth, EastIdahoNews.com
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