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David Torrey and Leanne Matthiesen inspect early growth of Russet Burbank potatoes. Link to photo information
Technicians David Torrey (left) and Leanne Matthiesen inspect early growth of Russet Burbank potatoes, the potato of choice for french fry processors. Click the image for more information about it.

New Software Aids Northeast's Potato Farmers

By Erin Peabody
December 13, 2005

A trip to Maine wouldn’t be complete without the taste of buttery lobster, sweet blueberry pie and of course, potatoes--whether they’re mashed, scalloped or French fried. After all, potatoes are nearly iconic in the state, having been cultivated there for at least 240 years.

And now, thanks to Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists, Maine’s potato growers have a new resource that could help them enjoy higher yields and engage in more eco-friendly farming practices.

The technology should be a welcome tool for the region’s tuber farmers, who like potato farmers across the country, must react to ever-changing disease threats, unpredictable weather--and even nutritional fads like low-carb diets.

After several years of studies, ARS researchers at the New England Plant, Soil and Water Research Laboratory in Orono have produced a software package that addresses one of growers’ most pressing concerns: Which rotations work best for potatoes?

According to research leader Wayne Honeycutt, farmers want more research on this topic, since the practice of growing potatoes year after year often leads to disease buildup, reduced soil fertility and flat profits.

With the right rotation, a potato farmer can suppress disease, enhance soil nutrient content, and boost crop productivity--all while reducing chemical inputs such as fertilizers and herbicides.

The lab’s completed product, known as the “Potato Systems Planner,” weaves together all of the ARS researchers’ findings on 14 different rotations for potatoes.

Especially promising, the scientists discovered, is canola. This oilseed crop produces potent sulfur compounds that can knock down problematic soil diseases. A natural field sanitizer, canola can be cultivated between potato plantings to reduce the incidence of potato-plaguing diseases like powdery scab and Rhizoctonia fungus.

The software also features an economic calculator that allows growers to estimate the potential profitability of a given cropping scenario.

Read more about this research in the current issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

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