For many years, the Tri-State Potato Variety Development Program, comprised of potato breeders from the USDA Agricultural Research Service, University of Idaho, Oregon State University and Washington State University, has been developing new varieties of potatoes.
A recent economic analysis released by the University of Washington estimates new Tri-State varieties are worth around $135 million in farm gate proceeds annually and that every dollar invested in the program results in a $39 return to the industry.
But until recently, the group received no monetary reimbursement for its efforts, despite the economic value of new varieties.
Potato varieties have been covered by plant variety protection since 1994, but often patents were not administered and, therefore, royalties were not collected, leaving universities and other breeders to pick up the tab for testing and development.
That changed when the Potato Variety Management Institute (PVMI) was created in 2005.
With the help of a feasibility study funded by the USDA, the Tri-State breeders broke new ground by forming the non-profit entity to administer patents.
TAKING IT TO THE FIELD
Development of new potato varieties requires grower participation. Through a system of Material Transfer Agreements (MTAs), growers can test advance clones under field conditions, aiding research and building up plant supply. The system also offers a monetary benefit to the Tri-State program.
PVMI provides for a three-tiered licensing system, with proceeds going to those spearheading the research. The multi-level fee structure is designed to give an advantage to Tri-State growers who already give tax support to the universities.
Those in the Tri-State region pay an annual license fee of $250, plus a royalty of 25 cents per cwt of seed sold. The license holder acknowledges he is receiving pre-released seed material and agrees to help evaluate its success and potential under real growing conditions.
Other U.S. growers can participate by purchasing a license for $500 per year plus 50 cents per cwt for seed. Those outside of the U.S. are charged $1,000 per year and $1 per cwt.
"It's important to have growers outside of the Tri-State area participate in this level of testing," says Jeanne Debons, PVMI executive director. "Sometimes a variety will perform better in a different climate than where it was conceived."
PVMI currently has 19 varieties available for trial, with more than 5,000 acres in production. Fifty-three growers in the Tri-State area committed 3,175 acres to clone testing in 2008. Another 21 growers nationwide have licensed 1,960 acres. Outside the U.S., 43 growers participated this year.
According to Washington State University, efforts are making a difference. In 1996, 50 percent of the potatoes planted in Washington were Russet Burbank. In 2005, that number had dropped to 41 percent, with 89 percent of the remaining potatoes Tri-State clones and new varieties.
It takes around 15 years to develop and test a new variety. All breeding is done the traditional way, with pollen being physically transferred from plant to plant.
The first year, mini-tubers are produced. The second year they are planted. From then on, it is a matter of "choosing the good ones" year after year, according to their appearance in the field, until the plant and tuber look just right.
From there, the potatoes are further field-tested by growers, preferably in a variety of areas. New varieties are evaluated on resistance to disease, fry and storage characteristics, among other properties.
The process results in one to three new varieties being released each year.
Once a variety is released, the Plant Variety Protection application process can take one to five years. With the patent, the variety is protected for 20 years from the date of application before it becomes public.
SHARING THE NEWS
PVMI also addresses another need. Before its inception, new potato varieties were not actively promoted.
This year, the Tri-State program is expecting to release two varieties, including A95109-1, an early maturing Russet well suited to the fresh market.
The new variety produces a high number of U.S. No. 1 tubers, is resistant to internal and external defects and has been referred to by one Northwest consultant as "a Norkotah on steroids."
Another success story is the Premier Russet, released in 2006. The potato grows well in the northwest, stores well at 42 degrees and makes light colored fries. It is also low in sugar, and therefore, low in acrylamide, a cancer-linked chemical compound that appears in starchy foods when heated to high temperatures.
Looking ahead, Debons sees more colored varieties as potatoes take their place on the health-conscious plate. Colored potatoes are rich in antioxidants, a known anti-carcinogenic.
"Potatoes have gotten a bad rap with the Adkins diet and lack of taste in some fresh pack varieties," says Debons. "It's important to educate the public on their nutritional value. Potatoes are a good source of Vitamin C, potassium, proteins and calcium."
Debons would like to see a day when potatoes are de-commoditized, allowing specialty varieties to occupy even more space in the overall potato picture. "Potato varieties should be differentiated for taste and other unique qualities, like apples," says Debons, "like they are in the UK and Europe."
PVMI also serves as an information source for growers, researchers and consumers.
"PVMI is a user-friendly conduit for information," says Debons. Through PVMI, producers are able to tell the universities what they need and how certain varieties fare.
The organization works with lobbyists to obtain research funding, provides a website and newsletter for growers and works to educate the public about potatoes.
It hosts field tours, works industry conventions and trade shows and through the use of grant dollars, advertises new varieties and the benefits of potatoes in general.
"We're hoping our approach will help not only the Tri-State breeders, but the whole potato industry," says Debons.