By CHARLES H. FEATHERSTONE
OTHELLO — It all began with a potato farmer asking a Boeing engineer to design a building.
It was the very early 1970s, and Bob Hesse, who had done engineering work for the Everett-based aerospace giant, had a small company, Stress Technology, that had also done some work in Moses Lake. So someone in Moses Lake asked Hesse to design a building.
“And he said, sure, what’s this for? What do I need to know about it?” said Chip Hesse, Bob’s son and the president of Othello-based Suberizer, Inc. “Oh, we’re going to put potatoes in it.”
Hesse said his father went to Washington State University, sat down with some faculty members there, got a presentation on potato storage and then proceeded to design and construction.
“I don’t think my dad really cared,” Hesse continued. “He was just worried about designing the building correctly.”
The building was well made, Hesse said, but the potatoes didn’t fare well. So, puzzled and annoyed at himself, Hesse said Bob went back to WSU and asked to hear the potato presentation again.
“He said, ‘I promise I’ll listen this time.’ And he did,” Hesse said.
And for nearly 50 years, Suberizer, Inc., has been designing and building those massive potato and onion storage buildings that dot the countryside. In fact, Suberizer kind of invented modern potato storage, pioneering design and construction of the giant buildings and their inside systems that can cost several million dollars, hold hundreds of thousands of potatoes, and use as much energy for heating and cooling as a data center or a pirate cove of cryptocurrency miners.
Not only do growers invest in potato storage, but some of the biggest food processors in the world — McCain, Lamb Weston, Frito Lay — build these giant buildings too, in order to make sure they have fresh potatoes available year round.
The company takes its name from the suberization process that potatoes — which “are living, breathing things,” Hesse emphasized — use to heal wounds from harvesting.
“Potatoes are essentially water,” he said. “When it gets wounded, that moisture in the potato can escape. It respirates a whole lot faster and can break down a whole lot quicker.”
Over the years, Hesse said the company has worked hand-in-hand with researchers at Washington State University to find ways to keep potatoes for as long as possible. For potatoes, Hesse said, it means keeping them at a consistent 48 degrees Fahrenheit and keeping the air as humid as possible while ensuring little or no free water collects anywhere. It’s not the best temperature for suberization, he added, but it allows the process to take place slowly and limits the ability of disease to spread.
“All of these buildings control to a tenth of a degree,” Hesse said of the six storage buildings the company leases out at its Othello location.
“Our goal is to keep these potatoes as plump and as nourished as possible,” he added.
While onions can be stored in the same facilities, the temperature requirements for onions are vastly different — they require a great deal more air, Hesse said, and need to be heated to nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit in order to dry them out and seal the stem tight before lowering the temperature to 36 degrees.
And because they bruise more easily, onions cannot be stacked as high as potatoes can, Hesse added.
Along the way, the Boeing engineers who had created some of that company’s complex aircraft control systems put their skills to work designing climate control units and software for agriculture.
“That, in a nutshell, is why we are still in business,” Hesse said. “Because of the interest that we have taken to understand.”
Hesse acknowledges that Suberizer has a reputation for building “the Cadillac” of storage facilities. Fairly cutthroat competition means that’s not as true anymore as it used to be, he said, but pretty much every one of Suberizer’s buildings is custom designed for each farmer or processor.
“Our goal is to understand mainly what the customer wants,” Hesse said. “You’re spending so much money, you to have this thing do exactly what you want it to do.”