BLACKFOOT — Sixty years after launching, Spudnik is doing well in the potato race.
The company, which traces its origins back to two local brothers who invented a potato scooper to do the backbreaking potato-piling labor farmworkers had to do by hand before, employs about 300 people today and makes more than 70 equipment models, with different ones for different conditions or different farmers’ needs.
“We are equipment manufacturers. We try to be seen as partners, though,” said marketing specialist Jan Muhle. “The farmers are so smart. They know what they need. … We try to offer solutions for our customers.”
Spudnik celebrates its 60th anniversary Tuesday with an all-day open house, including showing a short video from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on the company’s history and a customer appreciation dinner from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Over the years, Spudnik expanded from just handling equipment to harvesters. Spudnik broke ground on its current manufacturing facility just outside of Blackfoot in 1997. In the early 2000s another opportunity came along when Grimme Group, a German potato, beet and vegetable machinery company, needed an American partner.
Grimme was looking to expand but its harvesting equipment, although good for the smaller potatoes that are more common in Europe, wasn’t up to the bigger potatoes and more rugged conditions of Idaho. Grimme and Spudnik partnered to develop equipment, and in 2003 Spudnik became part of Grimme Group. Grimme and Spudnik still operate independently, although they share know-how “just to get the best solutions to the customers,” Muhle said.
The name “Spudnik” is a play on the Soviet satellite “Sputnik,” which was launched around the time brothers Carl and Leo Hobbs were designing their first potato scooper. There’s an extra level of wordplay too, Muhle said — someone told them their scooper would “nick” the spuds. The company’s color is red — red shirts, red equipment, red lettering on the building. There’s even a babushka doll and a Russian-looking tea set in a glass case behind the reception desk.
The company’s international sales have been growing — while the large majority of its customers are still in the U.S. and Canada, it has been selling more equipment in Russia and China. Muhle said the company wants to expand its facility in the near future.
“We can outsell the capacity we have,” he said.
Spudnik also is looking to expand into sugar beet equipment, along with potatoes one of the major crops of the Snake River Plain, recently developing beet harvesters and defoliators.
“We’re always learning and talking to customers and trying to be as close as possible,” Muhle said.
Reporter Nathan Brown can be reached at 208-542-6757.