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Tri-State Potato Breeding Program Dishes Out Big Returns

By Jan Suszkiw
February 28, 2003

Americans eat more than 140 pounds of spuds per capita annually. What they may not know is that there's a lot of science in every bite--some from the Northwest (Tri-State) Potato Variety Development Program. The program is a cooperative effort that draws on plant genetics, agronomy and other scientific disciplines to breed new, improved spuds.

Begun in 1985, the program pools resources and expertise from the Agricultural Research Service, Oregon State University, Washington State University and the University of Idaho. Each state's potato commission and industry representatives also participate. The results to date: 18 new potato varieties credited with safeguarding the Tri-State region against crop diseases and foreign competition.

In 2001 alone, the varieties' commercial use on 102,000 acres generated $295 million in farm sales for Tri-State growers, who produce 54 percent of the nation's tuber crop. The breeding program begins at two ARS research units--Small Grains and Potato Germplasm in Aberdeen, Idaho, and Vegetable and Forage Crops in Prosser, Wash.

At Prosser, ARS geneticist Charles Brown identifies and develops potato germplasm with desired traits. ARS Aberdeen geneticists Richard Novy and Joseph Pavek (retired) then cross that and other germplasm with genetically compatible parent lines, producing 800 to 900 families and 175,000 seedlings annually. Before his retirement, ARS plant pathologist Dennis Corsini checked for disease resistance and physiological disorders and maintained disease-free seed. Stephen Love of the University of Idaho, Alvin Mosley of Oregon State University and Robert Thorton of Washington State University coordinate their states' agronomic trials, postharvest evaluations and disease-resistance checks. They also help select breeding material worthy of additional development.

Of interest are traits--such as low sugar content and storage stability--that qualify spuds for fresh-market sales and processing into foods such as french fries, chips and frozen potato products. Breeding potatoes resistant to late blight fungus also is a main objective because of the environmental benefits and a potential fungicide savings averaging $160 per acre.

Producing a "finished" potato variety takes 12 to 15 years, but the wait is worthwhile. For every $1 invested in the program, there's a $38 return to the economy.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.