Many researchers and growers believed the Premier Russet would be the next great potato for the french fry industry, a likely successor to the industry standard Russet Burbank.
"We had high expectations—probably too high," UI Extension potato specialist Nora Olsen said of the Premier Russet.
Researchers and growers liked the new variety because it required less fertilizer than the Burbank, turned in higher yields and produced a higher percentage of U.S. No. 1 grade tubers.
The Premier Russet had undergone years of evaluations by university researchers in Idaho, Oregon and Washington prior to its release in 2006 by the tri-state Potato Variety Management Institute.
Researchers looked at a host of agronomic and storage characteristics, including yield, fertility, solids versus liquid content and disease and insect resistance.
They found that the Premier Russet could be stored for long periods at lower temperatures than the Russet Burbank without frying up dark in color, a huge advantage for a processing potato.
Field trials showed the Premier Russet could be grown with about 25 percent less nitrogen fertilizer than the Russet Burbank while achieving better yields.
There was just one problem: The new variety had not yet cleared all the stringent tests used by the fast food industry.
The Premier Russet ultimately failed to pass muster with McDonald's because of the size of the starch granules in the finished product, according to potato researchers. The texture of the fry apparently didn't measure up.
"While Premier Russet doesn't currently meet our internal standards, we continue to work with our suppliers to determine new potato varieties," McDonald's representative Ashlee Yingling said.
According to industry officials familiar with McDonald's, the company accepts just four varieties for its fries: the Russet Burbank, Ranger Russet, Shepody and Umatilla Russet.
Most have been in use for years. The Umatilla Russet was the latest of the four to be released commercially in 1998.
The rejection by McDonald's came in the bottom of the ninth inning with two outs, industry leaders said. They thought they had a home run.
Potato researchers say they've learned from the experience and are now working more closely with processors and fast food chains to evaluate potential new potato varieties earlier in the development process.
"We are going to look at these new varieties in terms of their potential to fit fry specifications much earlier than we did before," said University of Idaho potato agronomist Jeff Stark, who heads UI's potato variety development program.
"We have made significant strides in the past year in terms of figuring out exactly what quick-serve restaurants need," he said.
In the future, potato researchers will have a much better idea whether a particular variety will be accepted by fast food chains, or QSRs, as the industry likes to refer to them, before they're cleared for commercial release.
"Those selections that appear to have a good chance of meeting those QSR specifications will be advanced, and those that don't will be dropped," Stark said.
The issue goes beyond the Premier Russet and McDonald's, Stark said.
Researchers will also work more closely with the fresh-pack industry to evaluate new varieties before making releases, he said.
Many of the new cultivars must be managed differently than the Russet Burbank, and researchers want to do a better job of informing growers of the necessary adjustments, Stark said.
Premier lives on
While the Premier Russet isn't quite dead, its prospects have dimmed.
Millions of dollars worth of Premier Russet seed potatoes were dumped in 2010 because there was no demand for them, according to industry officials.
The Premier Russet is still being grown in the Northwest, but on far fewer acres than it was a couple of years ago.
"We are all going to continue to fight for it because it has so many good attributes," Olsen said.
The Premier Russet is still being used by some processors for certain frozen potato products, said Dan Hargraves, executive director of the Southern Idaho Potato Cooperative, a group that represents process growers in the state. At least two of the companies that he deals with are still writing contracts for it.
"They evidently see the value in that variety for some of their products," he said.
Growers are not ready to give up on the Premier Russet.
"There was quite a bit of disappointment that it appears to have fallen by the wayside," Hargraves said. "But as growers, we really like growing that variety. I don't think it's dead."
-Source, Dave Wilkins, Capital Press