Cattle Feeders Hall of Fame: From coin flip to cattle empire

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“Heads, it’s yours. Tails, it’s mine.”

It’s a seemingly innocent phrase that has been used in coin flips for generations. Such flips have decided possession of the ball at all levels of football. They’ve been the deciding factor when a decision could not be reached.

But for J.R. “Jack” Simplot, one coin toss in 1929 for an electric potato sorter gave birth to a global agribusiness empire that today employs more than 10,000 individuals and includes not just potato growing and processing but also cattle feeding and ranching, seed production, farming, fertilizer manufacturing, frozen-food processing and more.

Some are destined to be doctors, some lawyers, some politicians, some teachers. Simplot set his sights on agriculture from a young age. The epitome of a “self-made man,” Simplot grew up a farm boy in Delco, Idaho. After quitting school and leaving home at the age of 14, Simplot worked his way from farm laborer to one of American agriculture’s most innovative and successful entrepreneurs over the course of his 99 years. By the early years of World War II, the company was the largest shipper of fresh potatoes in the country and was selling millions of pounds of dehydrated onions and potatoes to the military.

Known globally for his company’s commercialization of frozen french fries and around Idaho as “Mr. Spud,” Simplot’s contributions to the potato industry are widely known. In fact, by a simple handshake with McDonald’s founder Ray Croc, J.R. Simplot Company became the exclusive supplier of french fries to the fast-food giant, and by 2005, the company supplied nearly half of all of McDonald’s french fries. However, since 1938, J.R. Simplot has been a significant contributor to the nation’s cattle-feeding sector. His success, though, did not happen overnight.

In 1938, Simplot purchased Bruneau Sheep Company in southern Idaho. As Simplot once said, “I bought 160 acres with a nice house on it from a fellow that was running the Bruneau Sheep Company. I got a little prosperous and I bought the whole company. At that time, they had 10,000 sheep and probably 50 head of horses.”

Most successful business professionals, regardless of the industry, will be quick to credit the team around them as a key component of their success. Simplot was no different and was quoted as saying, “My idea was to hire good people and turn ‘em loose and let them go, and it’s worked.” That’s exactly what Simplot did when he hired Fred Korner to oversee the sheep operation — a post he held until he passed away in 1955.

During Korner’s tenure, the livestock operation increased substantially to include several thousand head of cattle on the open range and cattle at Caldwell Feeders, which fed approximately 4,500 head in 1952. The cattle-feeding business was launched as a way to put the potato byproducts to good use — a practice still implemented today where food byproducts are part of a grain-based ration balanced by nutritionists at the company.

Simplot hired John Basabe to replace Korner in 1955. Basabe had previously been foreman of a ranch in Emmett, Idaho. Through the years, the partnership between Simplot and Basabe, where Simplot directed overall operations and Basabe led the day-to-day operations, was one which was highly valued by Simplot and officially began the Land and Livestock Division. Over the next decade, at Simplot’s encouragement, Basabe significantly grew the livestock operations, including the cattle-feeding operation. The Land and Livestock Division also included hogs, sheep and a cow-calf operation.

While the sheep operation was phased out, and as the company grew in revenue, the number of employees and different kinds of businesses ventures, cattle remained a focus for Simplot. According to a 1992 interview, he said, “I just love my cattle ranches, and I’m going to continue to buy the good ones if I can find them.”

Today, J.R. Simplot Company’s Land and Livestock Division has a feedlot in Grand View, Idaho, with a one-time capacity of 150,000, and a second feedlot in Pasco, Washington. The company also runs approximately 30,000 mother cows on more than a dozen ranches in five western states and operates about 40 farms.

J.R. Simplot passed away in 2008, but his legacy lives strong in his company that has not skipped a beat. Simplot kept the company privately held from its meager beginnings in 1929 until he stepped down as president in 1973, and today it is still one of the country’s largest privately held agribusiness companies. In addition, four of Simplot’s family members serve on the executive committee of the company’s board of directors.

Beyond his commitment to the company, Simplot donated generously to the Boise, Idaho, community and the State of Idaho through financial support of local economic development ventures, Boise State University, the University of Idaho, Idaho State University, Albertson College of Idaho, and local libraries, hospitals, museums and more.

The values for the J.R. Simplot Company are identified as “Passion for People, Spirit for Innovation, and Respect for Resources.” From the vision for his diversified agricultural enterprise to his commitment to his family, his employees and his community, J.R. Simplot embodied those values throughout his lifetime, building an agribusiness empire that remains not just one of the largest but also one of the most well-respected agribusinesses in the country. 

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