Knowing Your Roots

Archive for the ‘Antigo’ Category

Potato Viruses: The Silent Enemy of Seed Potato Production

Blog 9

It’s July in northeast Wisconsin. The air is fresh, the birds are chirping, and the potato fields on the isolated seed potato farm in Langlade County are a healthy green. This is a highly-specialized farm where precious disease-free tubers from the state’s elite seed farm are carefully nursed to supply the diverse requirements of commercial growers. Everything on the seed farm seems to be going well this year, and even the eagle-eyed inspectors have not found any evidence of disease. The farmer looks up at the bluebird sky and smiles at the promise of a warm summer day, unaware that a silent enemy may be approaching. In swirls and currents of air coming from the south, a scattering of feather-light insects is alighting unseen on the edges of his fields. They are anxious to insert their needle-sharp mouthparts into the leaves and begin feeding. These are aphids, which act as unwitting flying hypodermics, quietly moving from one plant to the next, sampling the sap they need to live. These harmless creatures are from southern growing areas where a myriad of crops exist that can potentially infect them with any number of virus diseases that they can carry to potatoes. Unlike the July sky, the enemy the aphids carry promises trouble.

Hijackers, tricksters and deceitful agents, plant viruses are some of the most devious and threatening enemies of seed potato growers in North America. They are the number one cause of seed lots failing to meet the standards necessary to wear the Wisconsin Certified Seed label. How do they do it, you ask?  Scientists have studied potato viruses for decades. They are very small micro-organisms that can enter plant cells with the aid of vectors, such as the aphids, but are incapable of multiplying without the help of the potato host’s resources.  Once inside a cell, virus particles use different strategies to hijack the cell’s resources to make more copies of themselves. Plants, like humans and other organisms, have defense systems that will recognize the presence of an enemy and try to stop its attack. But some viruses, like Potato virus Y, counterattack by turning off, or ‘silencing’ the plant’s defenses, allowing them to keep using the plant’s resources to multiply.   (more…)

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Behind the Scenes: The Slow Spring of 2014

 

Blog 15

It’s May, and in the Central Sands farmers are well on their way to wrapping up potato planting!  Farmers in northern counties like Langlade, the Antigo area, and north are just getting underway.  The wind is from the south, and regular spring rains are causing planting delays, testing patience while recharging the groundwater. The landscape is awake and thriving with native grasslands, trees budding and soon, with growing vegetables–the Central Sands region is one of the nation’s premier potato and vegetable production areas in the United States. Just the warm and earthy smell of the soil after rain is an elixir to the farmers; and the season is underway.

Farmers preparing for potato planting require several weeks of planning and organizing in advance of the big startup day. Potato seed took 3-4 years to produce in the right varieties and volumes in the northern reaches of the state.  Then growers carefully warm the seed to the current soil temperature and cut them into 2-3 ounce pieces.   These seed pieces are given a few days to heal (suberize), growing a protective skin to help prevent against disease and rot.  These 2 ½ ounce seeds contain the energy needed to give the sprouting plant the push to grow and emerge until it can begin to produce its own energy through photosynthesis.

Farmers once used horses to till and plant the land.  They had their own pace, their own speed. The simple machines of the past planted one row at a time at the unpredictable yet predetermined speed of horse. One farmer held the reins to keep the rows straight while another rode on the planter. By hand, potato seed pieces were fed into a device that dropped them into furrows opened by the planter and then closed and covered them with a hill where the new plant would grow and develop. This was a two-horsepower, two-farmer operation that was tediously slow but still a huge improvement on its predecessor that required a spade and bucket. In those early days, it might take a family two months of backbreaking work to plant just 20 acres.   (more…)

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