A numbers game
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step: a vision of delicious garlic mashed potatoes, or a nourishing scramble with steamed diced potato, a dash of olive oil, and fresh herbs.
That creamy, fiber-rich goodness didn’t just magically appear on your plate.
Sagar Sathuvalli, who leads Oregon State University’s potato breeding program, puts together hundreds of tests on thousands of baby spuds and dozens of generations of potatoes. It’s old-fashioned, methodical plant breeding. “A numbers game,” Sathuvalli calls it. “From the time we make a cross to the time we release a new variety, the process takes a minimum of 12 years.”
At OSU’s stations in Hermiston, Klamath Falls, Corvallis, and Ontario, researchers test generations of potatoes in the growing conditions of these distinct production regions. Sathuvalli works with a research team across the state and partners in neighboring Washington and Idaho to release new potatoes into the world.
Baby steps in Corvallis
Let’s say a potato grower wants a potato that can fight off verticillium wilt, a nasty fungus that lives in the soil. Sathuvalli can access the genetic heritage of at least 5,000 potato seeds from gene banks in Wisconsin and Peru. He might begin by selecting a potato like the ruggedly handsome Russet Burbank from Idaho that is susceptible to verticillium wilt. After an exhaustive search, he might find a glamorous variety from Peru that is good at battling the fungus. A cross between the two varieties would create a potato with the versatility and flavor of the Russet Burbank that could also fight off verticillium wilt.
He thinks, “What a beautiful romance.” But it’s an arrangement that needs a little help in this critical stage of their young lives. The well-cared-for environment of the greenhouses on the OSU campus helps rows and rows of parental selections flourish. Research assistant Solomon Yilma and colleagues collect pollen from flowers of the male parent using an electric toothbrush and tiny slides. Then they transfer the pollen to a female flower. The team performs this match for 200 to 300 crosses each growing season.
In Corvallis, Yilma nurtures parents of selections on crossing blocks. They develop fruit that looks like green cherry tomatoes. He extracts seeds from each fruit, plants the seed, and eventually oversees greenhouses full of three-inch seed-grown potato plants. Two months later, baby potatoes appear, called miniature tubers.
A beauty contest
Researchers harvest the youngsters and study each for vibrant skin and uniformity of the tubers’ figure and shape. Potatoes that win this first beauty contest are shipped to Klamath Falls, where Brian Charlton tracks 60,000 first-generation tubers each year to make the highest-quality selections. Charlton and the research team plant the first generation of seed tubers at a leased field 25 miles away from the Klamath Basin Research and Extension Center.
Charlton, who serves as something of a patriarch for OSU’s “potato seed nursery,” charts the progress of 300 potato families within that first year. Charlton knows the parents of each “child,” the year each “child” was created, and the field where each offspring was raised. He personally inspects each tuber to evaluate whether it “passes muster, so to speak,” he said. Every year since 2011, when the “nursery” moved to Klamath Falls, he has examined every speck of skin on 150,000 youngsters.
“I’m an agronomist, so I’m the ‘boots-in-the-field’ guy who can tell if a potato variety has the genetic potential to resist disease and fight off pests,” Charlton said. “We retain the stuff that shows resistance in the breeding population.”
Charlton definitely knows potatoes. Using his eyes, not a microscope, Charlton evaluates each one of those 60,000 varieties for quality, yield, and disease resistance, among dozens of other traits. OSU’s team stores the tubers at precise temperatures to help evaluate the quality of potatoes after storage. The team tracks every one of thousands of miniature tubers, and sends the best to OSU’s Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center for further trials.
In a warehouse deep in the Columbia Basin, the air kept chilly for perfect potato storage, technicians huddle around a table. Wearing gloves, they clutch small scalpels and scout for eyes on knob-skinned potatoes. A potato’s “eyes” are actually sprouts tucked into the crevasses of a tuber. Like surgeons who must make precise incisions to save lives, the technicians pare off four sprouts. Rustling paper, they carefully seal each stubby sprout in bags identified by numbers and letters: 2013 PYT-1, entry #686, clone type AOR10038-2.
Hermiston is the epicenter of OSU’s statewide breeding program. And all roads lead to the Columbia Basin for the ultimate potato.
“Hermiston is the most important site because so many of the potatoes in Oregon are grown here,” Sathuvalli said. “In the Columbia Basin of Oregon and Washington, the climate is slightly hotter than the Willamette Valley during the day and slightly cooler at night, providing optimum growing conditions.” The potato processing industry also keeps a strong presence in Hermiston, with several plants producing French fries, hash browns, and the like. In fact, when Sathuvalli started his position in the fall of 2012, the program leader’s base moved from Corvallis to Hermiston because OSU officials wanted it closer to the heart of Oregon’s production area.
Researchers also evaluate potato selections in labs in Hermiston by mapping out the exact location of these traits within a potato’s genes using molecular tools. This simply makes the process more precise, Sathuvalli said.
Think of that tough Russet Burbank from Idaho and the striking Peruvian beauty meeting at the molecular level.
Now fast forward in your imagination to a grownup potato.
Research also investigates later stages of a potato’s breeding cycle. Don Horneck, agronomist with the OSU Extension Service, leads research into more effective and environmentally safe fertilizer use. “Potatoes largely don’t require as much phosphorous fertilizer applied in ‘normal’ growing conditions, when root growth is not impaired by disease or growing practices,” Horneck said. Horneck’s research in Hermiston has focused on fertilizer applications on Russet Burbanks, Rangers, and Umatilla Russets, the latter of which were developed by the tri-state breeding program in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.
Testing in desert heat
Close to the Idaho border at OSU’s Malheur Experiment Station, Clint Shock, station director, and Erik Feibert, research assistant, assess new varieties based on their reaction to heat stress in Ontario.
In the height of summer, temperatures in Oregon’s Treasure Valley regularly soar into the high 90s. In the arid climate around a city known as “Where Oregon Begins,” wheat, onion, potato, and alfalfa seed fields stretch as far as the eye can see, hugging the shimmering Snake River. Researchers test thousands of varieties for appearance, yield, market grade, fry color, and specific gravity. They test different methods of irrigation and applying fertilizer. The winning potato varieties selected in Ontario are renowned for their beauty, toughness, and flavor profile.
Back to the center
The best selections from Klamath Falls are planted in Hermiston.
Researchers sort selections for specific characteristics—uniform shape and size and vibrant skin—to select the best potatoes that will move on to second-generation trials. From there, they will go on the next year’s trials where breeders look at more than just good looks; they want good frying qualities, bruise resistance, good flavor, marketable yield, low sugar content, and good storage attributes. This process continues for seven to nine years, retaining only the best-performing selections every year. It takes 12 to 13 years from the time breeders make a cross to the time a new variety is released. “A new variety needs to have high yield, and it should carry some kind of added economic value for producers like disease resistance or reduced fertilizer needs,” Sathuvalli said.
Now it is time to put the young potatoes through the hardest tests of their young lives. The best potatoes move to the Oregon Statewide Trial, then to regional trials in Washington and Idaho, with the hopes of claiming the ultimate tiara of this nearly decade-long beauty contest: variety release.
Growers are watching this potato love story with keen interest.
“Other than a federal grant and smaller grants, grower support is the operational money for the program,” said Russ Karow, department head of Oregon State University’s Crop and Soil Science unit. The Oregon Potato Commission makes contributions to research and Extension programs in the amount of more than $250,000 annually, and about $150,000 more for operational support of experiment stations in Hermiston, Klamath Falls, Ontario, and Corvallis.
In 2012, a $500,000 commitment from the Oregon Potato Commission created an endowment to help fund a plant breeder to lead OSU’s potato development efforts. Sathuvalli is the inaugural holder of the Oregon Potato Research/Extension Professorship. Potatoes were Oregon’s sixth most-important agricultural commodity in terms of gross sales in 2011, according to the most recent report by the OSU Extension Service. The state sold $165 million worth in 2011 after harvesting nearly 40,000 acres.
The tiara goes to…
The lineage of that Russet Burbank and Peruvian beauty, and many other “couples” like them, has left an extraordinary legacy in the Pacific Northwest.
In the last four years, the tri-state program has released 12 new varieties. More than 30 new varieties have been released since 1985.
The Umatilla Russet potato, released in 1998 by Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, is resistant to Potato Virus X and is now the fifth most widely grown variety in the U.S., according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service and the National Potato Council.
In 2012, growers produced the tri-state varieties Umatilla Russet, Alturas, and Premier Russet on about 60,000 acres in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington; 17 percent of Idaho’s potato acreage consisted of tri-state varieties; and tri-state varieties made up about 37 percent of total potato acreage grown in Oregon and Washington.
Varieties recently released by the tri-state program are now produced on more than 130,000 acres in the Pacific Northwest with economic worth to growers estimated at about $600 million.
Now that’s a numbers game.