Knowing Your Roots

Posts tagged ‘Rhinelander’

How do potatoes get to your holiday table? – It all begins with the seed!

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Potatoes, we love them, particularly at this time of year. Thanksgiving is close, and it just would not be the same without those creamy mashed potatoes to accompany your turkey and cranberries. Did you know that Wisconsin ranks 3rd in US potato production?  Did you know that the potatoes you are enjoying actually began life anywhere from 5-8 years before they got to your plate?  Probably not, but during the next few blog posts we would like to introduce you the exciting journey that your potato takes from a lab in Madison, to isolated farms in pristine Northwest Wisconsin and even a trip to Hawaii for a lucky few. This is the process needed to produce the disease-free seed tubers that potato growers must plant to meet all your culinary potato needs.  We hope these next blog posts will help illuminate this fascinating journey.

Potatoes are not grown from actual seeds, but come from daughter tubers (seed pieces) that carry all the traits of the mother plant. To be certain that plants are disease-free, true to variety and carry only the traits such as color, texture and taste that consumers desire, the journey starts in labs on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.  The Wisconsin Seed Potato Improvement Program, the first of its kind in the US, is funded by Wisconsin potato growers and directed  by Dr. Amy Charkowski of the UW-Department of Plant Pathology. Here, disease-free potato plants representing hundreds of varieties and characteristics are maintained. In the winter, tiny tissue slivers are grown into small plants in sterile test tubes. These tiny plants, the forerunners of your favorite baked or mashed potato, are then cut into even smaller pieces and grown into plantlets that have roots and leaves of their own.  Every spring, thousands of these plantlets are driven from Madison to an isolated UW Elite Seed farm in northern Wisconsin, close to Rhinelander. Once there, they are placed in protected hydroponic greenhouses, where they can grow over the summer and produce hundreds of pea to marble-sized mini-tubers, which represent the future of the potato industry. Over 400,000 mini-tubers are produced in Wisconsin using this method every year.   (more…)

What makes a potato beautiful?

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Today’s potatoes suffer from lowered self-esteem due to constant bombardment from the media’s perception of the “ideal potato.”  This phenomenon first emerged in 1952 with the debut of Mr. Potato Head.  Here was the plastic representation of what a potato was supposed to look like — only two eyes, smooth, unblemished skin and that perfect oblong shape that was designed to be baked and filled with goodies. No mention of the myriad of nasty diseases that are likely to attack a real potato during its life. In recent years, this popularized image has only gained traction due to Mr. Potato Head’s breakout role in the box office hit “Toy Story.” This media exposure is sending a message to our potato youth that in order to be beautiful they should ignore life’s realities and emulate a plastic toy.

But help is on the way! Scientists in the University of Wisconsin potato breeding programs are working hard to help young tubers grow-up in the field to reach the size, shape and taste that consumers want, without succumbing to all those nasty diseases. In our lab, we are employing advanced techniques that enable potato varieties (already accepted in the marketplace) to have all the qualities that consumers want and resist infection from diseases without the need for grower intervention. In my project, I am working with one of the most widespread and destructive diseases of potatoes, aptly named early dying. This disease is caused by a fungus called Verticillium that attacks through the roots and clogs the plant stems causing them to wilt and die prematurely. The fungus persists in soil for multiple years and growers have few options other than fumigation or extending the time between potatoes to multiple years, which are both hard on the pocketbook!   (more…)

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

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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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