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Bill Schaefer Managing Editor

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Michigan State University (MSU) Extension Agricultural Employer Checklist now provides agricultural employers with updated...
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Agro-Culture Liquid Fertilizers
Don Flannery

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Maine Seed Potatoes

The economic downturn has had a severe impact on Extension programs and potato breeding programs nationally, and in 2009 Maine's Gov. John Baldacci decided it was time for the state's Department of Agriculture to get out of the seed potato business.

So the Maine Potato Board (MPB) stepped in and assumed control and oversight of the Porter Seed Farm in January 2010 through legislative action by the Maine legislature.

Don Flannery, executive director of the Maine Potato Board since 2001, oversees management of the seed farm these days.

In the two years since the MPB assumed oversight of the Porter Seed Farm in Masardis the total acreage has grown from 54 acres to 75 acres of early generation seed, and Flannery anticipates additional growth over the next couple of years.

Three years ago the seed farm began a hydroponic system in its greenhouses. Flannery said the change to a hydroponic system allows them to propagate material faster to get it out to commercial growers. He added that there was a learning curve during the switch to hydroponics but they've got a pretty good handle on it now. Currently the MPB is running two greenhouses to capacity with potential for future growth.

The emphasis is on seed for Maine seed growers, but Flannery said that they are developing markets outside of Maine, something the seed farm did not have the capacity to do prior to the management shift.

"Our goal is to provide that high-quality early generation to Maine seed growers. That's primarily our goal; that's our focus; that's No. 1," Flannery said. "But we've also in the last two years been able to sell some seed outside the state. We're shipping mini-tubers to three or four different states now."

Flannery said the long-range goal is for the seed farm to become financially sustainable.

"We've got some challenges ahead of us but I think we've gone a long ways and ultimately there's some new markets out there for us that may be outside of Maine and we're going to try and take advantage of them but we're going to make sure we take care of our Maine guys first," he said.

Simplot to close Idaho processing plants

J.R. Simplot Co. announced that it will be closing three aging potato processing plants in Nampa, Aberdeen and Caldwell, Idaho, in the next two to three years upon completion of a new plant in Caldwell, Idaho.

The plant will be a 380,000 square-foot facility built on the site of the company's original processing plant in Caldwell. Site preparation is anticipated to begin in May 2012 and the start-up expected by spring of 2014.

"Competition in the food industry has become challenging, with profit margins shrinking and costs continuing to rise," said Bill Whitacre, Simplot CEO, in a press release.

The new plant will employ about 250 people, according to the press release, resulting in job losses of about 800 with the closure of the processing plants in Aberdeen, Nampa and Simplot's original plant in Caldwell.

"The new plant will produce the same output as the three older plants and will allow us to remain competitive in the marketplace," said Mark McKellar, Simplot Food Group president.

McKellar said that renovating the three plants would cost as much as building the new plant and renovation would have provided fewer long-term, sustainable production gains.

"Unfortunately, our current Idaho plants lack the flexibility, processing capability and energy efficiency that we need to be sustainable," McKellar said in the release.

The new plant will have a smaller carbon footprint, use considerably less water and be more energy efficient.

"The Caldwell location affords excellent access to rail and road transportation, water raw potatoes and other inputs, and the skilled labor force that will be necessary to operate and maintain such an advanced facility," McKellar said.

The original Caldwell plant site was chosen by J.R. Simplot as a dehydrating operation in 1941 and subsequently expanded into potato processing in the early 1950s.

Tight supplies in all sectors

The USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service released its first production estimate of the fall crop on Nov. 9. Nationally, NASS forecast 385 million cwt., up 5 percent from last year, the average yield forecast is 410 cwt. per acre, down 6 cwt. per acre from the 2010 yield.

Production from the Pacific Northwest states of Idaho, Washington and Oregon totaled 249.6 million cwt., a gain of 12.7 percent from 2010.

Oregon led with an increase of 16.4 percent, Idaho and Washington jumped 12.5 percent and 12.2 percent, respectively.

North Dakota saw its production drop almost 18 percent this year. Maine's total output dropped 11.7 percent, Wisconsin dropped 8.1 percent and Minnesota declined 6.7 percent.

Bruce Huffaker's North American Potato Market News for Nov. 9 predicted a shortage of potatoes in all sectors despite production increasing 18.6 million cwt. in 2011 compared to 2010 figures.

Huffaker's report said that most of the increased PNW production has been contracted for fryers and dehydrators, he expressed skepticism about the PNW production figures stating that the estimate may be 3 million to 7 million cwt. too high.

Huffaker said that processors are trying to secure any additional open potatoes at this time and predicts that chip companies supplies will be severely tested in the coming year.


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BASF applies for approval of GM potato

BASF Plant Science has applied for European Union approval for Fortuna, a genetically modified potato. The application for approval from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is for commercial cultivation and consumption by humans and animals. EFSA will assess the safety for humans, animals and the environment.

According to the BASF press release researchers have given Fortuna complete resistance to late blight through transferring two resistance genes from a South American wild potato. Late blight is caused by the fungi-like pathogen Phytophthora infestans.

In the press release, Peter Eckes, president of BASF Plant Science, said: "The processing characteristics of Fortuna area as good as the parent variety. In addition, Fortuna offers complete protection from one of the world's most persistent potato diseases."

Fortuna represents further development of one of Europe's leading potato varieties for the production of French fries.

According to the BASF website, research efforts on the disease-resistant potato began in 2003. Fortuna has been tested in field trials for six years. Market introduction is expected for 2014 or 2015.

Photo: In the foreground: GM Fortuna potato plant; in the background: late-blight-infected potato plants.

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