Three’s Company

Scientific successes of the Northwest Potato Research Consortium

Published online: Mar 30, 2018 Articles Chris Voigt, Washington State Potato Commission
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This column appears in the April 2018 issue of Potato Grower

One of the greatest challenges we face as a society is the decline of public funding for agricultural research. As our global population continues to grow, we will have to figure out a way to double our food production over the next 30 years, using the same amount of land and resources. This is not possible without significant investment in agriculture research. 

In the spring of 2011, the potato growers in Washington State gathered to address the continual decline of state and federal resources for potato research. Was there a way to get more potato research done, knowing that public funding was tight? Confronted with this question, Washington growers turned to their friends in Oregon and Idaho with a novel approach that had never been attempted before, regardless of the commodity. The proposal was to share resources: to come together and jointly fund potato research that would benefit the entire Pacific Northwest potato industry.

We posed lots of questions, and realized that collaboration was the best answer for almost every one: We are confronted with many of the same production problems, so why were we each paying for the same research in each of our separate states? Let’s save resources by avoiding duplication. Let’s have our scientists collaborate more with their peers in our three states. Let’s create an easily accessible library of research for our growers. Let’s work together to attract more federal grant funding. There was enough commonality among the three growing regions to make this work. It was a no-brainer for the potato commissions of each state.

In February 2012,  the state potato commissions in Washington, Idaho and Oregon officially launched a new cooperative effort in research called the Northwest Potato Research Consortium. The Consortium is made up of three representatives from each of the three states and is managed by Dr. Andy Jensen. The aim of this initiative is to increase cooperation and efficiency of the research programs funded by the three potato commissions. It also works toward a comprehensive process of reporting research results that aims to get useful information to the growers and industry members who need it.

One of the important aspects of the Research Consortium is that it is also a tool to buffer the potato growers against the potential loss of an individual researcher at any one of the three land-grant universities. There will likely be a time in the future where each state can no longer provide a potato nematologist, or potato pathologist, or entomologist, etc. Since the three commissions now cooperate on research, there is less of a need to have a particular type of scientist in each state; the three states can now share that individual if need be.

The Consortium has no borders. It funds research projects that deliver the best return on investment back to the potato growers of the Pacific Northwest, regardless of which university it occurs at. This philosophy has delivered the best possible research, done in the most cost-effective way, and attracts over $1 million in additional grant funding. 

The Northwest Potato Research Consortium has just completed its annual review of proposed research projects. The three commissions have committed to fund over $1.5 million in projects covering virtually all aspects of potato production. As I reflect back on this year’s review process, I can’t help but remember a time in history where our states didn’t get along, where it was every man or woman for him or herself. Now we work with each other rather than against each other. I appreciate my neighbors and what we have accomplished by working together.