Truck driver Melissa Bradford’s job isn’t like any other trucking gig out there. She spends her driving days hauling a four-ton potato across the country as part of the Big Idaho Potato project, a promotional initiative by the Idaho Potato Commission.
The campaign began in 2012 as a way to promote the Idaho potato while donating to small charities in the towns the campaign visits along the way. Idaho produces more potatoes than any other state, bringing in nearly $4 billion to the state’s economy each year. For Bradford, an Idaho native, potatoes have always been a part of her life.
“I went out in the garden with my dad when I was a little tiny girl and we dug up a potato and he kind of rolled it around in his hands, got the dirt off best he could, and he put a little salt on it and handed it to me,” Bradford said. “That was one of my very first memories.”
Bradford hauls the massive, manufactured potato with a Kenworth T680 with a 76-inch sleeper that is leased to the project. She drives it throughout the country as part of the Famous Idaho Potato Tour. The truck has a PACCAR Powertrain with a PACCAR MX-13 510-horsepower engine, PACCAR 12-speed automated transmission, and PACCAR 40k tandem rear axles.
The potato itself is welded to the trailer, so Bradford doesn’t have to worry about any sort of securement. The load is oversized, though, and requires special permitting wherever it goes. It’s 72 feet long from nose to tail, 10 feet wide and 13 feet tall.
This places Bradford on some bizarre country roads, she says. Parking is also a regular challenge because “we’re expected to go into these smaller towns and negotiate corners and small parking lots that are sometimes full of cars.” Bradford also drivers the truck and its oversized load through parades, which can become tightly packed with people.
“Generally, wherever we’re headed, they’re kind enough to cone off an area but I still have to get it into that area,” Bradford said. People who haven’t driven trucks may think she can work her way into an area, but they forget to mention low-hanging telephone lines or trees. “I don’t want to end up with a peeled potato so I have to handle that carefully,” she said.
Bradford is accompanied over the road with twommarketing team members, Jessica Coulthard, and Kaylee Wells. The trio, called the Tater Team, is the first all-female team in the project’s history. Bradford says she wouldn’t be successful at this job without the support of her team members, who help her with securing permits and other tasks.
“It’s empowering to me to know that we yet again are doing something that hasn’t been done before, and we’re handling it. We’re taking care of business,” Bradford said.
Together, the team does interviews with local media when they pull into a new town to spread the word about the Idaho potato.
“This potato, it might be a stationary object, but it is a good time and people get excited to see it,” Bradford said. People will invite their whole family down to take a picture with the big potato. “It’s fun to see that joy on people’s faces.”
Bradford got her Class B CDL in 2008 and upgraded to a Class A in 2016. She’s driven for transit companies, hauled for a paving company, run grain and sugar beets, participated in a heavy equipment operator program, and has driven school buses. Bradford also does woodwork and carpentry and runs her own business, called Her Own Tools, where she creates content around those subjects. Bradford also joined Duluth Trading Company as a model about a year ago.
“I like to learn new things. I like to challenge myself. If someone wants to come along with me and either learn or teach me something, I’m all about it,” Bradford said. “I think there’s always room for growth no matter how old you are or who you are.”