Continuing Evolution

Published online: Nov 15, 2021 Articles John Lundeen, Research Director & Alyssa Green, Industry Communications and Planning Assistant, Potatoes USA
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This column appears in the November 2021 issue of Potato Grower.

The National Chip Program (NCP) continues to serve the U.S. potato chip industry by starting a new trial site in Maryland. This action stems from a decision by the NCP steering committee to collect additional data on candidates that perform well in the hot and humid mid-Atlantic state environment.  

Prior to developing the NCP, growers and breeders worked together regionally, brainstorming solutions for a better storing potato or a candidate that resisted disease. An ideal candidate for chip production masters four criteria: agronomics (e.g., yield, lack of defects, stress tolerance), disease resistance, maintaining its qualities out of the field or from storage, and upholding attributes that produce a high quality and profitable chip in-plant during processing.

A factor included in this criteria checklist is the ability for a candidate to withstand a unique set of environments to increase its chances of survival nationwide when it comes time to increase to a larger production system. While grants from the USDA kept breeders and growers funded, candidate selection was severely hindered due to a lack of data related to varying environmental impacts on the candidates. When a variety made its way to SNAC trials, it was uncertain whether the variety would hold up in another climate. Fast-forward to today, where national collaboration is the norm, and the now numerous members of NCP collaborate to determine which varieties to focus their energy and finances on while gaining valuable insights about each variety in a set of unique environments. Jointly, it’s a contribution of plant breeders, agronomists, disease testing experts, potato field specialists, commercial growers and chip processors.

Following are a few numbers that illustrate the depth and breadth of NCP:

  • Thirteen universities provide candidates, test for diseases, or run trial sites. These include Colorado State University, Cornell University, University of Florida, University of Idaho, University of Maine, Michigan State University, University of Minnesota, New Mexico State University, North Carolina State University, North Dakota State University, Oregon State University, Texas A&M and the University of Wisconsin. On average, these universities estimate committing 872 hours per year to the program. In addition, the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and the Pennsylvania Potato Growers provide invaluable assistance in breeding and trial management.  
  • Twelve university and ARS breeders are involved. 
  • Nine trial locations provide the opportunity to test candidates in all the major chip-growing regions.
  • In a typical year, 19 private companies are involved, including commercial growers who provide land to grow out larger quantities of tubers for in-plant tests. 
  • Six chip processors provide time in their plants to help evaluate the candidates.
  • During the largest NCP variety selection meeting in December 2019, 33 organizations were represented.
  • Specifications on 18 qualities are tracked.
  • There are 24,330 variety records, as well as 2,008 varieties for NCP now contained within Medius Ag, the 24/7 tool for collecting and analyzing trial results. 

During the summer of 2021, the National Chip Program committee met and the NCP steering committee, made up of four representatives from chip processing companies and five potato growers, voted to add a new location to the trial system. After much debate and collaboration, it was decided that the new location will be set in Maryland. A Maryland testing site will put varieties to the test regarding environmental strain and, in turn, will provide NCP members important data for trial varieties. Setting up a new trial site is no easy task; however, the excitement surrounding it energizes the team to make it happen.

Potatoes USA focuses on strengthening demand for U.S. potatoes, which is supported by important supply-focused programs like NCP. To put the impact into perspective, in 2020, 5,889 acres of U.S. seed was planted with varieties that were tested in the NCP trialing system, a number that has seen an increase annually. With the addition of the Maryland trial site, candidate selection criteria will be better able to scrutinize selections to see if there are any better than current commercial standards, resulting in a toolbox of better, more desirable chip processing variety options.