ARS Research Promotes Sustainable Potato
By Ann Perry
July 13, 2009
Americans consume about 130 pounds of
fresh and processed potatoes per capita annually, and in 2008 U.S. farmers
harvested some 41.3 billion pounds of spuds on more than one million acres. So
making even small changes in how potatoes are grown could yield big benefits
for the environment.
Scientists at the Agricultural Research
Service (ARS), the principal intramural scientific research agency of the
U.S. Department of Agriculture, are making
potato production as sustainable and environmentally friendly as possible. So
far, plants in the mustard (Brassica) family, which have natural pest
suppression properties, have been key partners in this effort.
New England Plant, Soil and Water Laboratory in Orono, Maine, scientists
have conducted long-term research with canola and other Brassica crops
in rotation with potatoes since 1997. Theyve found that with the right
crop rotation, potato farmers can naturally suppress diseases, enhance soil
nutrient content, boost crop productivity, and lower the use of fertilizers,
all of which lower the risks of economic losses.
Using rotation crops has reduced some soil-borne diseases from 20 to 50
percent. Canola crops are particularly promising because they produce potent
sulfur compounds that can knock down powdery scab and Rhizoctonia
On the other side of the country, scientists at the
Vegetable and Forage Crops Production Research Unit in Prosser, Wash., have
found that one to two tons of crushed mustard seed meal applied per acre
without herbicides significantly reduced early weeds in potato fields. Mustard
seed meal is left over after vegetable oil has been extracted.
Potato producers in the Pacific Northwest already use white and brown
mustards as cover crops in rotation with potatoes to reduce wind erosion and
help control plant pathogens. The Prosser researchers also determined that
mustard cover crops can contribute more than 30 pounds of nitrogen to each acre
of crop soil, which could save farmers $14 to $30 per acre, depending on the
cost of nitrogen fertilizers.
ARS research to reduce the need for pesticides used in potato production is
part of a larger mission to support and enhance more sustainable agricultural
production of food, feed, fiber and fuel throughout the United States.