It was 7 a.m., and a cold blanket of air lay heavy on the valley floor. September frost glistened on the grass along dry roadside ditches as a convoy of pickup trucks streamed its way to a remote field southeast of Klamath Falls.
OSU researchers and colleagues were about to see what happens when the deck is shuffled in potato genetics.
A year earlier, potato researchers Alvin Mosley and Solomon Yilma of OSU’s Crop and Soil Science Department had crossbred all kinds of potatoes–bakers, boilers, chippers, fryers, even heirloom peanut fingerlings and French Larettes. They created 10,000 new genetic combinations of potatoes. Through the painstaking methods of traditional plant breeding, they took pollen from the flower of one variety and put it on the stigma of a flower of another—a process called cross-pollination. They nurtured the resulting potato seeds in a campus greenhouse until each plant produced tiny tubers. Then, they planted the tubers in a field outside of Bonanza, Oregon.
Now, 10,000 varieties of potatoes were ready for harvest—and inspection by OSU researchers and growers.
A plume of dust glowed in the early morning light as a tractor unearthed the new potatoes. About a dozen researchers, a large proportion of the potato expertise in the Pacific Northwest, followed the tractor through the field with clipboards, tags and net bags in hand, inspecting thousands of newly turned tubers of varied sizes, shapes and colors.
Some of the potatoes were round, others ovate; some were as small as peanuts, others were 3-pound lunkers. Cut open, the spuds were a rainbow of colors, including yellow, red, pink, orange, purple, lavender and blue. Their textures ran from waxy to buttery, from mealy to creamy, watery to dry.
Interest was keen among the group, which included OSU researchers, seed certifiers, fresh market growers, Extension agronomists, graduate students and visiting scientists from around the world. They hoped that this broad mix of genes might create something new for the market—some combination of traits that might lead to new potato varieties for high-value, gourmet fresh markets. Among the 10,000 new varieties, they looked for potatoes that could be labeled "baby," "heirloom," or "new" in upscale food stores and on posh restaurant menus.
The group moved briskly through the dusty field, scanning the unearthed treasures. A freshly dug hill of particularly interesting tubers halted people in their tracks. "Here’s some elephant hide," said one researcher, pointing to a spud with thick, granular-looking skin. "That’s no good."
Occasionally, they would cut open a promising-looking spud. "Forget that one, it has hollow heart," said one inspector, throwing a sliced half to the ground.
In some potatoes, beauty was only skin deep. In others, a plain exterior might hide a colorful interior, revealing a swirl of orange or purple when sliced open. "These with colored flesh are the ones that interest the gourmet chip markets, especially if they have a pattern," said Steve James, a potato researcher at OSU’s Central Oregon Agricultural Research Center in Powell Butte.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, even among potato scientists. Some looked for varieties that would look good on the plate. Others looked for consistency among tubers, key to producing a new variety. All wanted blemish-free skin and shallow eyes.
By the end of the day, 117 labeled sacks lay beside the field. Each contained a set of tubers with pedigrees noted carefully. Only 117 in a field of 10,000 were considered good enough to send on for a decade or more of trials, where OSU researchers and others around the West will further scrutinize future generations for their appearance, disease resistance, yield and cooking qualities.
To develop a new variety can take up to 12 to 15 years. Standards are rigorous. Only about 1 in 100,000 evaluated have been released as varieties to growers.
Coming up with appealing new fresh market potatoes is only one small aspect of OSU’s work to develop new potato varieties. Most of their efforts go toward bringing to growers better-suited varieties of potatoes—spuds with increased disease resistance, higher yields and potential for the frozen, chip and fast food industries.
There’s a large OSU team involved in these efforts. All over inland Oregon, agronomists, Extension specialists, plant pathologists, geneticists and research assistants grow, test and evaluate potential new varieties.
The OSU Agricultural Experiment Station and OSU Extension Service work closely with Washington State University (WSU), the University of Idaho, USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and cooperating farming and industry colleagues as the Tri-State Potato Variety Development Program. Their main efforts are to breed, grow out and test new lines of spuds for commercial stock. When new varieties are ready for growers, all three universities and ARS release them jointly.
Though there are thousands of known varieties of potatoes in the world, consumers in the United States choose from just a handful of varieties.
"Five varieties account for 90 percent of the U.S. acreage," said Alvin Mosley, a professor of crop science at OSU. "The most popular is Russet Burbank, which makes up about 40 percent of the U.S. commercial production."
Thanks to potato researchers at OSU and their colleagues around the region, more varieties are available to U.S. growers and consumers, and these varieties are more productive and disease resistant than their ancestors.
Since its inception in 1985, the Tri-State program has released 18 new varieties to commercial growers. They include Alturas, an oblong light russet good for processing and fresh market; Ivory Crisp, round, and white, ideal for chips; and Klamath Russet, especially well suited for the Klamath Basin environment.
Idaho, Washington and Oregon produce about half of the potatoes grown in the nation. In 2001, varieties developed by Tri-State research generated $295 million in farm sales. For every $1 invested in the Tri-State program, there’s a $38 return to the economy, according to the USDA-ARS. Oregon growers typically produce almost 30 million 100-pound sacks of potatoes annually, worth $150 million a year before processing.
About 75 percent of Oregon’s potatoes are grown for the processing market, ending up as fries, chips, jo-jos and other products. Adding value after processing, Oregon’s potato crop is worth more than $300 million, making the potato industry rank among the highest of Oregon crops in total value.
But it’s not easy money for growers or researchers. Potatoes pose a different set of challenges than most other crops. They usually are sown not by seed, but by planting small whole tubers or "sidepieces" from larger tubers called seed potatoes. Growing one plant from a part of another is called "asexual propagation" or "cloning."
"We don’t use seed because it would be genetically unstable," said Ken Rykbost, superintendent of OSU’s Klamath Experiment Station. "But in some parts of the world, such as in China, true seed is produced and used, as it is more easily transported than tubers." And true seeds are generally free of viruses, a major concern for potato growers worldwide.
Asexual propagation provides consistency from generation to generation, but it comes at a cost. Planting tubers to grow more tubers passes diseases and pests from generation to generation.
"Disease buildup can be devastating to yields and creates a need for more pesticides," explained Mosley.
The health of Oregon’s potato industry depends heavily on the use of healthy seed tubers provided by OSU’s Foundation Potato Seed Program (FPSP). A source for test tube-grown, certified disease-free potatoes since 1995, the program supplies lines of certified disease-free stock for growers who raise seed potatoes for commercial growers. Disease is eliminated by a combination of tissue culture techniques, extensive testing, heat treatment and what Mosley calls "chemotherapy."
"OSU’s Foundation Potato Seed Program has broken the cycle of disease that is normally carried from generation to generation in potatoes," said Mosley. "Starting with disease-free potato seed is the single most important factor in controlling potato diseases and pests. If diseases and pests are not evident in the field, the need for fungicides and pesticides is drastically reduced."
For consumers, the work to develop new, healthy potato varieties culminates on the plate and the palate.
Steve James has one of the more refined palates in the OSU Agricultural Experiment Station system. He has spent almost 28 years analyzing potato varieties and testing seed potatoes for OSU’s Central Oregon Agricultural Research facilities in Madras and Powell Butte. For a couple of days each year, he and his colleagues come in from the fields to don chef’s hats. They make French fries and chips from dozens of potatoes, the most promising candidates for release as Tri-State varieties.
One taste, and James can tell it’s a well-bred, refined red, fall 02, with sweet yet earthy undertones, a bit bitter around the edges. It’s not a fine wine, it’s a potato.
Like people, great-looking potatoes aren’t always the best performers. Tri-State cooking trials at WSU in Pullman help weed out potatoes that fall apart when boiled, or turn dark when fried. Those that make it through the cooking trials must face the test of taste.
Through a long history, people have developed a taste for spuds. Humans have carried potatoes from the high terraced fields of South American mountains to the deep-fat fryers of America.
Looking towards the future of potato variety development, the OSU team sees a continuing increase in diversity of potatoes that require fewer chemical pesticides to grow.
"I see more niche varieties, such as the new colored-flesh potatoes, fingerlings and other gourmet varieties with special flavors, textures and colors becoming more popular," said Mosley, who semi-retired from OSU recently, opting for a 2-year, half-time appointment.
"I see fewer pesticides used on potatoes, now," he said. "We are traditionally breeding better varieties that have better vigor, yields and insect and disease resistance."
Klamath Station superintendent Rykbost envisions more variety in what the food industry wants, needs and uses.
"Big fast food companies are really fussy about their potatoes," said Rykbost. "They want a uniform product. For years, the French-fry industry wanted nothing but Russet Burbank. Then new varieties came out that performed better, such as Shepody and Ranger Russet. That broke the ice. Now the industry is more willing to try new varieties. And these new varieties are better; they mature earlier, yield more, require fewer pesticides and produce a better product with less waste."
Both Mosley and Rykbost believe traditional crop breeding will continue to be the mainstay of new potato variety development.
"We will continue to get truly new varieties through traditional breeding," said Mosley. "Good yield and vigor involve thousands of genes. Genetic engineering involves only one or two genes, which might improve an existing variety, but will not create a new one."
For more information about OSU’s Potato Information Exchange and the International Potato Center (CIP), see these websites: