Disease-resistant potatoes boost Pacific Northwest farmers

Potatoes on a conveyer belt
These potatoes are from a variety trial by the tri-state breeding collaborative. (Photo by Stephen Ward)

Potatoes are susceptible to a number of pathogens such as potato virus Y, Columbia root knot nematode, and verticillium wilt. Pacific Northwest scientists including OSU’s Sagar Sathuvalli are constantly at work to develop disease-resistant varieties faster than the pathogens can mutate.

Sathuvalli is part of a team of scientists from Oregon State University, Washington State University, and the University of Idaho that has partnered with the USDA on potato research since the mid-1980s. This tri-state collaboration has produced 40 improved potato varieties, most recently Castle Russet and Echo Russet.

Oregon’s part of this research focuses on disease and pest resistance, with plantings in four different areas—Hermiston, Corvallis, Klamath Falls, and Malheur County—to create the right variety for the right climate.

While the researchers work to stay ahead of the pathogen curve, they also have to pay attention to how vigorously the potato plants grow, as well as how each variety performs in the kitchen: Is it good for French fries, which must have a great deal of structural integrity? Is it a good “chipper,” which will fry up crisp and light? Is it best sold as a fresh potato, bruise-resistant and maybe with the colored flesh indicative of healthful antioxidants?

“And most importantly,” said Sathuvalli, “does it taste good?”

While this research is not oriented specifically toward organic farming, Sathuvalli says, it is still highly relevant. “Some of the varieties, like Castle Russet, are resistant to potato virus Y, corky ringspot, and other pathogens, and require no major pesticides,” he said. “So they are well suited for organic cultivation.”

Potatoes are the fourth most consumed food crop in the world. Cultivars developed by the tri-state collaboration ranked as the third, fourth, seventh, ninth, and tenth most widely grown potato varieties in the United States in 2016, accounting for about one-third of the nationwide fall crop. In the past 10 years, the U.S. farmgate value of tri-state varieties has increased by approximately $190 million. These varieties are now grown on more than 143,000 acres in the Pacific Northwest, with value to growers estimated at $600 million.

Sources: Vidyasagar (Sagar) Sathuvalli, geneticist and potato breeder, OSU Department of Crop and Soil Science; USDA Economic Research Service. See also this article in Oregon’s Agricultural Progress


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