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…)
Sugars are a major concern for the potato industry. As consumers, we demand a year-round supply of high quality potatoes to eat. When processed, we expect the perfect, blond chips and French fries we are addicted to. However, to ensure this year-round supply, tubers must be stored at carefully controlled temperatures and humidity’s for up to 9 months to maintain the balance of sugars needed to ensure acceptable processing quality. This is a major challenge for the industry, as potato tubers are living, breathing entities that seem to have their own agendas when it comes to storing them for longer than they are designed to be kept.
If we store potatoes at temperatures that are too high, the tubers soon realize that it is time for a new year to begin and within a few months they adjust their internal physiology and sugar balance to produce sprouts and start to grow. On the other end of the scale, if we store potatoes at temperatures that are too low, we can slow everything down and store tubers for long periods without sprouting, but only at the expense of disrupting the balance among the complex of sugars that give tubers their characteristic flavors and, worse yet, cause chips and fries to turn dark brown when they are processed! To find the middle ground where we can have long term storage without disrupting the delicate balance of sugars needed for taste and processing, we need tools that enable us to monitor what sugars are present and how these change under different storage conditions. (more…)
When you think about how to use new advances in X-ray technology, potato breeding is probably not the first thing that springs to mind. However, scientific researchers at the University of Wisconsin are doing just that to help develop new potato varieties — and to do it faster! State-of-the art, high- speed X-ray technology is now becoming a routine practice for evaluating potential new potato varieties, because it is faster and much more effective. Do you remember your last X-ray at the doctor office? It was time-consuming, uncomfortable and expensive. Not so with potatoes! Every day during harvest, tens of thousands of potatoes are examined in just milliseconds, at virtually no cost!
This technology is possible by incorporating a high speed X-ray imager into the potato-grading line (where potatoes are evaluated after harvest). This imager takes an X-ray image of each tuber as it passes through the machine at a high rate of speed. From that image, computers calculate just about anything that you ever wanted to know about that tuber, including its weight, length, width, height and shape; most remarkably, it can determine if there are defects on the outside and even the inside of the tuber. This is a huge improvement on previous technology in both speed and expense, which is akin to doctors being able to take the X-rays they need as you drive past the clinic! (more…)
For any progressive business, it is common knowledge that investment in research and development will increase its efficiency or broaden its portfolio. This principal applies to agriculture as well and nowhere is this better exemplified than by Wisconsin’s potato growers. These hardworking growers are known across the United States for their innovations in production, resource conservation and sustainability. These achievements did not occur by happenstance; they required a vision and an investment from the industry to achieve that vision. Recognizing this, every Wisconsin potato grower voluntarily pays 6 cents to their association for every 100 pounds of potatoes produced annually. This is no paltry sum, as Wisconsin is the 3rd largest potato-producing state in the US with close to 28 million 100 pound sacks grown during 2013!
A large portion of this money is invested back into the University of Wisconsin to provide scientists from multiple disciplines the dollars needed to fund research in all areas impacting potatoes. Over 25 projects are funded annually – ranging from short-term, innovative problem solving to long-term, basic science- for a total of over $350,000 each year. The initial association investment of $10-20,000 in funds to individual projects pays big dividends to the growers, the industry and the state, as UW researchers are able to use this funding to leverage additional federal funding sources back to Wisconsin by over 100 fold! In 2014 this translated into over $30 million return on a $350,000 investment!
The dedication and excellence of faculty, academic staff and graduate students across multiple academic disciplines generates remarkable results. To give readers a glimpse into some of the fascinating individual stories being generated in labs and field stations across Wisconsin, the New Family Farm postings over the next several months will feature ongoing research being conducted by graduate students. These will address important topic areas that include Potato Breeding, Seed Production, Growing Potatoes, Protecting Natural Resources and Managing Pests. Each topic will be introduced by faculty experts in the field and followed by specific graduate student research projects. We hope you enjoy these glimpses into the stories that are evolving in one of the nation’s premier potato research programs.