Partnerships, Teamwork, and Persistence Bring New Potato Varieties

Hundreds of new, promising, numbered (unnamed) potato genotypes are evaluated at research station and farm sites each year. Ohio State is one of many institutions involved. In 2021, we are evaluating more than 100 numbered selections from four breeding programs against seven standard industry varieties. The same evaluation techniques we use can be employed by individual vegetable farms.

High-performing varieties are just one of the core raw materials for vegetable production, which also relies on water, mined or manufactured inputs and equipment, and the know-how to use all of them. Whether formal or informal, variety evaluation is essential for individual growers and the vegetable industry. Since now is when differences among varieties of individual crops begin to show themselves on farms and research stations, it’s a good time to discuss traits and processes used to evaluate varieties.

When we evaluate genotypes of potato being considered for naming and release as varieties, we score plant maturity and record total and marketable yield and more than ten tuber characteristics for each entry (e.g., tuber size and shape, skin color and texture, flesh color, eye depth, incidence of internal defects, and specific gravity and chip color). Collaborators in other states evaluate the same genotypes for pest and disease resistance, crop tolerance to heat stress, storage effects on tuber quality, and tuber cooking quality and sensory properties. So, like for other vegetables, developing potato varieties requires teamwork.

Background on the Variety Development Process

Experimental genotypes originate in public-sector breeding programs based at universities and the USDA. In fact, although varieties developed by private companies (e.g., major processors) contribute significantly, the U.S. potato industry (especially the fresh/tablestock and chip sectors) has long relied on varieties developed in the public sector. Public-sector varieties are developed by large teams led by universities, USDA, and/or state industry associations or organizations and account for most of the available varieties, acreage, and value of production.

Whether public or private, variety development teams include breeders/geneticists, agronomists/horticulturalists, plant pathologists, entomologists, food scientists, farmers, processors, and people with expertise in related areas.

Potato varieties are named, released, and made available for commercial use only after years of comprehensive, widespread testing, beginning with just a few plants and concluding at farm scale. Once released, varieties support processing (i.e., chip, fry), fresh market/tablestock, and/or breeding programs. The varieties ‘Atlantic’ (released in 1976), ‘Dark Red Norland’ (1957), ‘Katahdin’ (1932), ‘Kennebec’ (1948), ‘Red LaSoda’ (1953), ‘Superior’ (1962), and ‘Yukon Gold’ (1981) are just a few examples of public-sector varieties that have been planted to many thousands of acres over decades of production. Varieties like these set the bar for and/or are found in the “family trees” of newer, increasingly popular varieties.

Still, markets, production conditions, and industry factors change continuously. Therefore, variety development must be ongoing and once-popular varieties are eventually displaced by new, more farmer-, processor-, and consumer-friendly ones. The process is designed to enhance industry success and consumer satisfaction.

Evaluation is nearly continuous since sites are located throughout the U.S. and the process begins before planting and ends long after harvest. Groups based in the East, Midwest/Upper Midwest, West and Pacific Northwest, and South often coordinate the work. Ohio State and Ohio farmers and processors have participated annually for more than fifty years. We emphasize the evaluation of genotypes originating in eight breeding programs and with potential value in fresh and chip markets and have contributed to the release of multiple varieties used in Ohio and elsewhere.

Sharing Results

Data from our 2021 trials will be summarized in a report available at https://u.osu.edu/vegprolab/technical-reports/ with data from 2020 and previous years available at https://neproject.medius.re/trials/potato/ne1731 and https://neproject.medius.re/. Later, we will join team members from Maine, New York, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, and USDA and industry partners to discuss evaluation outcomes and begin selecting new entries and others to be evaluated again or dropped from the program. With information reflecting variety or experimental selection performance in the field and on the plate, the breeder and team have key information when making the thumb-up/thumb-down decision on each entry.

Still, for all crops, the performance of each variety (or experimental genotype) hinges on how it is managed, the know-how allowing growers to get the most from each variety. Planting and harvest dates, plant populations (spacings), irrigation and fertility programs, etc. influence variety performance and, therefore, whether a grower will select the variety again. So far, potato genotype evaluations at Ohio State have been completed without irrigation and this approach has clearly affected tuber yield and quality. We are rethinking this approach and look forward to speaking with vegetable and potato growers about their use of irrigation.

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