Knowing Your Roots

Posts tagged ‘breeding’

What makes a great potato? – The science of breeding for the future

Blog 2

Go to your supermarket these days and you will see an emerging trend in the fruit and vegetable section – an increasing array of varieties on display that are specifically designed to meet consumer demands. Apples lead the way with dozens of different varieties on display with specific tastes, textures and uses. Other food favorites are jumping on the apple bandwagon with potatoes now joining the chase.  Five years ago your potato choices were likely to be limited to russets, round whites and reds, served up in small or large bags with cost often being the a prime driver.  Now, potato choices have rapidly changed as new varieties with multiple colors, shapes and sizes are part of the consumer’s palate.  Today’s consumers are looking for specific varieties based on how they taste and whether they are using them for fries, chips, baked, mashed or salads.

The evolution of choice in potatoes is moving fast now but it has taken generations of painstaking and exacting science to get to where we are today.  Over the coming weeks, the New Family Farm site will explore the art and science of breeding potatoes through the work of graduate students.  Since the beginning of agriculture, humans have been identifying, creating and refining new varieties of food plants for their productivity, appearance and culinary characteristics.  This process, known as plant breeding, continues to help improve potatoes to meet the evolving needs of society by bringing together the skills of several disciplines such as genetics, molecular biology, plant pathology, engineering and others.

The first step in plant breeding is to create individuals with novel genetics that may express the traits we are seeking.  Just as humans create children by combining their genetic makeups, potatoes can be enhanced through genetics. Most new potato varieties are created by “mating” or cross pollinating existing varieties with other varieties, or ancestors, with the goal of combining the best characteristics of the parents to create a new potato that has the features we desire.  Those green, tomato-like fruits, formed on pollinated potato plants contain hundreds of seeds, each one genetically distinct. It takes the artistry of the breeders to grow these thousands upon thousands of seeds in the greenhouse, identify the traits they express, select the most promising, re-cross to obtain the best balance and ultimately propagate them in the field. It can take years to develop a promising new potential variety.   (more…)

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Fresh and Local – A lifetime of learning: Wisconsin potato growers refine their craft

Blog 45

It’s cold out there on the farm! The snow falls, the wind whistles, and there is just not much you can do to get a jump on the coming season—well, not quite. If you are a Wisconsin potato grower, now is the perfect time to refine your skills and learn something new. Wisconsin already enjoys a well-deserved reputation as national leaders in sustainable potato production. In this new era where consumers are increasingly basing their purchasing choices on how sustainably their food is grown, Wisconsin is already ahead of the pack in adopting the practices that are now in demand. They introduced the nation’s first vegetable eco-label with Healthy Grown™ fresh potatoes over a decade ago and are now reaping the benefits of this foresight. A Wisconsin potato grown using practices that sustain the environment, local economies, and the wellbeing of rural communities, can now stack up against the best potatoes you can produce anywhere, and it’s grown right here in your backyard—no extra food miles needed to travel to get here!

Building that kind of advantage does not come without a huge investment! The Wisconsin potato industry invests over $400,000 every year (no small potatoes!) with research partners from the University of Wisconsin to develop the tools that keep Wisconsin on the cutting edge along with the basic science that underpins those tools. The UW potato research and extension team is unrivaled anywhere in using grower support to generate tens of millions of dollars in additional competitive grant funds to advance the industry.

Funding the research and developing the tools that growers can use are only the first steps.  Working together to implement them is the key to success!  This comes through an intensive and continuing educational process involving on-farm field days, local county meetings and culminates in an annual state-wide Grower Education Conference.  Held during the coldest part of the winter in February, this is the “crown jewel” of the Potato Industry’s education program.  Over 350 growers from Wisconsin and around the nation gather together for three days in Stevens Point, WI.

With temperatures hovering around the zero degree mark this year, pickup trucks jammed the parking areas and surrounding streets of the conference center. The lineup of speakers—from Wisconsin, Idaho, Maine, Nebraska, Iowa, Washington DC and even Cambridge, England—were on hand to share expertise. An amazing array of forty-two speakers from the University of Wisconsin, representing 11 different academic departments, shared research and recommendations covering all aspects of potato production. Theme areas in 2014 included issues impacting groundwater, pest and nutrient management, breeding, variety development, food safety, storage and overall sustainability. The depth and breadth of this research is remarkable!

One key theme throughout the conference was preserving our groundwater resources for future generations. Presentations covered both the basic science underlying water use by crops and natural vegetation along with how this information can be used to model the interactions between the groundwater aquifer and surface lakes and streams. In-depth discussions of potential and ongoing projects that examine the impact of different crop landscapes on water use, as well as new technologies to deliver water precisely and only where and when it is needed were all part of the intense education the Wisconsin growers experienced.

Everyone left tired but brimming with fresh ideas and a renewed enthusiasm to implement the technologies and practices that will keep Wisconsin at the forefront of sustainable production. So, when the next snowstorm races across the state and those farms appear frozen and inactive, remember that the growers aren’t on winter break!

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