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…)
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…)
Wisconsin’s Central Sands provides a great diversity of food crops. It is one of our country’s most important vegetable production areas, and also one of our most diverse. Our farmers do grow USDA program crops like field corn and soybeans, but the Central Sands acreage is overwhelmed by a broad mixture of vegetables and specialty crops. We grow potatoes of all kinds—russets for baking and fries, reds and yellows for salads and many other purposes (yes baking too), round whites for chips, even sweet potatoes are grown in the Central Sands. Sweet corn, green beans, peas, carrots, peppers, cucumbers and beets dot the landscape. Most of our vegetable crops are bound for processing plants (canned and frozen) within Wisconsin then distributed across the US and to other countries around the globe. Fresh vegetables are also available to you at local farmer markets and grocery stores. We are working on expanding this area of production as the market calls for them. This crop diversity provides consumers everything from crunchy pickles and spicy relish, cranberry sauces and juices to fresh table potatoes for every meal event, locally grown in Central Wisconsin. Did you know that Wisconsin is also the nation’s largest supplier of cranberries? (more…)