Knowing Your Roots

Seed potato plantsThis is a wonderful time of year when winter grudgingly gives way to spring and our next growing season. From my third story office windows in Antigo I have the opportunity to see trucks hauling seed potatoes from our seed farms in northern Wisconsin to our commercial farms in the Central Sands and beyond. This flurry of activity lasts for several weeks as farms take in, cut, treat, suberize and warm the seed in preparation for planting.   Like many things in Wisconsin, potatoes can be very unique. We have a multitude of types and varieties to choose from. These types and varieties are very specific in their purpose. Certain types are better for certain uses. There are many russet varieties, some have cooking characteristics for home and restaurant use, we call fresh or table potatoes. While other russets, are best suited for frying (process / frozen).

We also have a very important chipping potato segment within our industry. Potato chips are one of America’s favorite snacks and fit well beside our fast and convenient meal choices. Chips have taken many names. Initially Saratoga (NY) fries, crisps in Europe, portable potatoes in the US. Importantly, these are whole potatoes containing nutritional value at an affordable nutrient delivery. We are working hard at developing new, unique types of potatoes to fit hectic lifestyles. Small potatoes gained popularity with B size, red skinned potatoes, many times called new potatoes. Today we grow many types of small potatoes, yellow flesh, white, purple, russets, reds – one, two or three biters, available in the same bag. These are convenient, quick and easy to prepare.

The journey from seed to your tables takes several years, starting in a lab on the west end of the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. Potatoes are grown from daughter tubers that carry all the traits of their mother. Seed potatoes must be tended to carefully from the beginning to manage diseases that would quickly reduce crop yields and diminish quality.

To eliminate plant disease and produce the best potatoes possible, our industry relies on the expertise of the UW-Department of Plant Pathology Department and the Wisconsin Seed Potato Certification Program. Our team takes sprouts from tubers and grows them in test tubes. These “test tube” potatoes are tested for genetic purity and are ensured to be disease-free. Pure heirloom lines and specialty varieties are maintained and can be grown if requested. These tiny plants are cut into four even smaller plantlets that are grown until they have roots and leaves of their own. Every spring and fall, thousands of these plantlets are driven from Madison to an isolated farm in northern Wisconsin, close to Rhinelander. There they are placed in hydroponic greenhouses, where they can grow and produce hundreds of pea to marble-sized, mini-tubers. Over 400,000 mini-tubers are produced in Wisconsin using this method every year.

Still genetically pure and disease-free, the mini-tubers are stored over the winter and then grown in fields, to increase their volume, for an additional year or two. Field inspectors walk the fields daily looking to remove any impure or diseased plants. This results in fully-grown tubers that are now ready for sale to certified seed growers.

These tubers are planted on farms that specialize in growing certified seed potatoes. These farms increase the volume of tubers several times while maintaining their disease-free and varietal purity status. This growing region is located in an isolated area in northeastern Wisconsin where disease carrying insects are rare, making it an ideal location to limit disease or virus introduction into these potatoes. The WI Certified Seed Program located in Antigo annually certifies the potato seed crop grown on these specialized farming operations. Certified seeds are grown-out in Hawaii during the winter where inspectors do a final assessment of disease and genetic purity. Once the winter trials have proven to be disease free, seed farms receive an official tag that certifies the tubers are suitable for planting on any potato farm or home garden anywhere in North America. This stage of the seed potato process can take 4-7 years to certify potatoes for the commercial market.

Wisconsin seed potato growers started working with UW scientists in 1905 to work to improve potato quality and production. By 1913, the growers had established and funded the Wisconsin Seed Potato Certification Program, the first of its kind in North America. By 1917, by the 1920s, yields doubled – due to having access to healthy seed tubers. Each year, approximately $200 million dollars’ worth of potatoes sold in the United States originated as tissue culture plantlets in the Wisconsin Seed Potato Certification Program. When you are shopping at your local garden center for your potato seed, think about the process to develop that seed for your use. Then choose your favorite variety based on how you plan to cook and serve these potatoes. It is important to look for the tag from a certifying agency attached to the bag, indicating its genetic purity and seed health. Using certified seed will pay dividends.

Duane W. Maatz, Executive Director WPVGA

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