San Luis Valley Research Center Continues Potato Studies

Published online: May 11, 2018 Articles Kathleen Thomas Gaspar
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Source: The Produce News

As he nears his three-year anniversary as manager of the San Luis Valley Research Center, Tyler Thompson said the upgrades and changes at Colorado State University’s College of Ag Sciences facility north of Monte Vista are too numerous to list.

Just in the past year, Thompson said, the potato research center has seen the development of a continuous sterilizing seed cutter, improved and buried electrical utilities, the acquisition of a self-propelled Lenco potato digger “with the help of a local valley grower,” the creation of a virtual conferencing space, and remodeling and expansion of the main office area.

“My third-year anniversary will be June 5,” Thompson said in late April. “And my long-term goal for this station is to constantly update its facilities, make the resources that the personnel on the farm need to do their work readily available at all times, make the farm as safe a place as I can and eventually build a new research-grade storage facility.”

All those goals were put in sharp focus mid-April, when the facility, as well as most of the state of Colorado, endured sustained high winds and operated under red flag fire watch conditions.

During the week of April 16 more than a dozen wildfires were whipped by the winds from the New Mexico border and southern Colorado to the state’s northeast plains. One large fire was battled in the San Luis Valley, and the gusting winds also caused structural damage and affected spud planting in the valley.

At the center, Thompson said Monday and Tuesday, April 16 and 17, were the biggest wind days of that week.  

“Average wind speed Monday recorded at our farm was 31.7 miles per hour, and on Tuesday was 44.1, 15 on Wednesday, 26.9 on Thursday, and up to 33.2 on Friday. Gusts on Tuesday ranged between 67 and 80 miles per hour, depending on the location in the valley and the time of day,” he said.

The toll was significant.

“Structurally, the entire roof came off of our cellar in a single sheet,” Thompson continued. “We haven’t yet looked into any damages that may have occurred to the Potato Certification Laboratory roof that it landed on but will soon.”

In addition, “One car is most likely totaled, one pickup truck had some dents and scratches, and our John Deere Gator had the entire [roof] weight bearing down on it. Interesting though that it survived without a scratch thanks to its roll cage,” he said. Injuries were also reported but were minor. “One person was injured from flying debris and had to receive a few stitches in his hand.”

Spud planting was not in full swing, but some growers had gotten a few acres in.

“Quite a bit of the San Luis Valley barley was in by the time that storm occurred,” Thompson said. And he added, “I cannot speak for the rest of the valley potato farmers, but I had to replant approximately 8 percent of our acres.”

Additional activity dished out by Mother Nature notwithstanding, the research center continues its intensive breeding program to find new varieties especially suited to the Colorado industry.

“The breeding program is constantly coming out with potential russets, yellow, reds, specialties and chipping potatoes,” Thompson said. “From 2017 there was a chipper and a brown-skinned, light yellow flesh potato that seemed to interest many. That crew has recently acquired a red color meter, so that they can start putting some data behind how red our reds are and how long in storage they will stay that way.” A new assistant is being hired for project researcher Caroline Gray, Thompson said.

“Samuel Essah’s crew continues to work on the agronomic information regarding a lot of the new potato varieties that the breeding program puts out,” Thompson continued.  “Also, he works on deficit irrigation projects to determine how much we can cut back on irrigation before we begin to sacrifice yield and quality.”

In another study, “Sastry Jayanty is doing some new research to discover the relationship between the texture analysis of tuber tissue and its ability to resist pressure flattening or pressure bruising. This will be important as shippers determine when they need to move what variety from which storage bin, so as to minimize culls and waste. He is also working on a new application of existing food products that will help potatoes store longer by resisting disease, dehydration and sprouting.”

And, Thompson said, the center is “in the process of hiring a new pathologist. We will finish interviews in the next three weeks and hope to have a candidate moving this direction by late July.”

While it keeps pace with technology and science, the center itself has a long history of research. The first San Luis Valley Research Center was established in 1888 on 200 acres several miles southeast of its current location. In 1940 the operation started its focus on choosing varieties that were adaptable to the San Luis Valley, and nearly 40 years later the program was expanded to include potato breeding research. A seed certification program was initiated nearly 100 years ago.