HANCOCK, Wis. — While local farmers are dealing with a recent report of disease in a local potato crop, they are joining researchers to figure out how to engineer the spuds to avoid such problems.
It's serious business in Portage County, where more than a quarter of all Wisconsin potatoes are grown.
University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers and other experts talked about those disease issues Tuesday during Potato Field Day at the Hancock Agricultural Research Station, a 412-acre vegetable crop study farm in central Wisconsin.
Researchers discussed topics such as genetically modifying potatoes to help improve production, using drones to take photos of fields to identify possible issues with disease, and the use of fungicides to help avoid disease once the potatoes are harvested and in storage.
The issue of disease was highlighted after the University of Wisconsin reported an incident of late blight in Portage County. Late blight is a fungal disease of potatoes resulting in dry brown rot.
Any issue of disease involving potatoes could have major implications in a state and local community deeply invested in the crop. According to the 2012 Wisconsin Agricultural Statistics Publication, Wisconsin is the third-largest producer of potatoes in the country with about 64,000 acres harvested. The same report also showed Portage County as the top potato-producing county in the state with 17,600 acres harvested.
Amanda Gevens, a UW-Extension plant pathologist in potatoes and vegetables, said Tuesday that the late blight has so far been found on just one potato field in the county, but didn't give further details.
The strain of the blight found in Portage County, known as US-8, was prevalent in the state in the 1990s. The strain also was detected in Portage County last year, but prior to that, it hadn't been seen locally since 2009. Gevens said the strain typically appears when the weather is cooler and there is higher moisture.
US-8 can infect both tomatoes and potatoes, and Gevens said experts recommend preventative treatments of fungicide for tomato and potato fields in Portage County or within about a 50-mile radius.
"Rather than spraying weekly, you would go down to about every five days," she said. "It's a problem that could potentially be very serious if you don't take preventative measures, but at this point, it's only in a small area and we are working to make sure it stays contained."
Dwight Mueller, director of the 11 UW-Madison Agricultural Research Centers throughout the state, said the work being done by researchers highlighted at Potato Field Day is intended to help growers avoid having to deal with issues such as disease.
"We're looking at plant breeding and looking at disease, and there's very high value to the work when you see how important agriculture is to this state," Mueller said. "This research is intended to make them successful now and in the future."
Justin Isherwood, who runs his family farm in Plover, attends the Potato Field Day annually and was there Tuesday with his wife, Lynn.
The farm, which has been run by the Isherwood family for nearly 160 years, spans 1,500 acres including 150 used for potatoes.
Isherwood said he's aware of the local blight situation, and his biggest concern at this point is the possibility he might have to use a more expensive fungicide to spray his crops. He pays about $15 an acre to spray, but that would almost double with the more expensive option.
"It's in a small area right now, so we'll see what happens. We'll go along with what the consensus is with other farmers," Isherwood said.
Asked about the future of the potato industry, he said the current market isn't supportive of much genetic engineering of potatoes, but he thinks that will change.
"I think it will have to. You have the chance to make something that needs less water to grow or isn't as affected by disease," Isherwood said.
Source: Stevens Point Journal