Why Not Us?

Published online: Jan 18, 2022 Articles, Seed Potatoes Tyrell Marchant, Editor
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This article appears in the January 2022 issue of Potato Grower.

For decades, plant breeders and researchers across North America have spent countless hours meticulously matching potential partners in hopes of creating a better potato. With bleary-eyed, dogged determination, they pore over trial reports and tenderly cultivate tiny plantlets. With a little bit of luck, all that work might ultimately lead to one of those crosses becoming a named variety and put to use on actual farms and in actual kitchens.

Every year, news about a few of these new varieties starts making the rounds. Each holds a heap of promise: This one will store longer; that one is less susceptible to bruising; yet another is more resistant to late blight or Fusarium or psyllids. By and large, each of those varieties does what it says it will.

Yet, for some reason, after all that work and the successful production of exactly what they were going for, very few people in the world of variety development have seen their varieties become widely accepted in the industry. This phenomenon is perhaps illustrated most starkly in two russet varieties: Burbank and Norkotah. Since what feels like the dawn of time, these two have completely dominated both the fresh and russet sectors the russet market. Over last couple decades, dozens of varieties have been touted as “the next Burbank” or “the next Norkotah.” On paper, most appear to have the chops to back up such a claim. But none have

The question is, why?

Jeanne Debons is the executive director of the Potato Variety Management Institute, which works with grower organizations and university programs to develop and promote new varieties of potatoes in the Pacific Northwest. This is the kind of question that keeps her up at night. She has a real passion for variety development, but understands the realities of the industry.

“Growing new varieties is like driving a Formula 1 race car,” she says. “Many of the newer varieties are capable of high performance and can result in superior yields, often with fewer inputs. The catch is that they require a lot of attention to detail. Growing varieties like Russet Burbank and Russet Norkotah are simple in comparison, because growers have many years of experience with them.” 

The Macy family has been farmiung seed potatoes in central Oregon for almost 50 years. In that time, they have taken on the task of growing new PVMI varieties several times.

“We’ve tried a lot of varieties,” says Mike Macy, “trying to get some of them going in the industry. We’ve liked a lot of them, but it’s easy to get burned if a processor ends up not approving a variety. As seed growers, it’s a risk to stick our necks out and produce something new. You might put years into it, only to have the industry change its mind and leave you holding the bag.”

Richard Macy echoes Debons’s belief that hesitation to adopt new varieties is often driven by familiarity with the tried and true.

“There’s forgiveness for an old variety,” he says. “If a commercial producer has something go wrong with Burbank or Norkotah, they’ll be back the next year. If you put a new variety out, there’s no forgiveness. If they have a bad experience, that variety is usually done.”

Ritchey Toevs, who farms commercially for the process industry in Aberdeen, Idaho, agrees. And he thinks it’s a perilous mindset for the industry to get into. Specifically for his home state, famous for its potatoes, Toevs believes there is immense value in wisely increasing production of the best new varieties.

“Finding varieties selected for our region, that work for the industry here, is really important,” he says. “Idaho has created a powerful brand, but can we maintain it putting out the same product that other states can produce just as well?”

Toevs is referring to Burbank and Norkotah, which, he says, offer Idaho limited opportunity for differentiation.

“You can grow Norkotahs in Colorado or Nebraska or Texas just as well as you can in Idaho,” he says “It’s really difficult to differentiate product if it’s the same product. Will people keep coming to Idaho to buy the same thing that can be grown everywhere else?”

“There all these new varieties that you’d think would perform well in different regions,” says Mike Macy, “but there are still a lot Burbanks and Norkotahs. I think the industry will eventually get to a point where some of those will be more widely adopted.”

For the past five years, Toevs has grown Clearwater Russets, a variety that has gained some traction in the “next big thing” conversation. They have succeeded on his farm, in part, he says, because he didn’t dive in too quickly.

“Commercial grower like me can scare easily,” he says. “But you don’t have to go out and plant your whole farm to a new variety. Do it in small steps; take notes; continue to evolve and adopt on whatever small scale works for you.

“Growers also need to talk to the breeders and people who develop varieties to help them understand the issues,” Toevs continues. “Breeders and developers don’t always understand what we face on our end. Communication needs to be better, because those people are really committed; they want to see these varieties work, and they really believe in them—usually with good reason.”

That’s the Holy Grail of variety development: finding one that not only gains a foothold but conquers the peaks of widespread acceptance in the industry. Surely, if the next Burbank isn’t already out there somewhere, it will be soon. Will it be Clearwater? Or another PVMI variety (Debons has high hopes for Umatilla, Pomerelle and La Belle Russet)? Of course, no one can say for sure. But the future looks bright.