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100 Years of PAA and Certified Seed Potatoes

One hundred years ago this autumn, U.S. potato farmers were harvesting and storing their first crop of certified seed potatoes. These pioneering farmers working with Extension professors across the northern U.S. created seed potato certification agencies based on European programs, which was a system that had helped increase potato yield and quality in Germany, the Netherlands and other old-world potato producing countries. 

There were researchers responsible for much of the work in establishing seed potato certification in North America. One of the most influential, Professor James G. Milward, was a potato Extension specialist from Wisconsin.

Milward began working with potato farmers in 1907. In 1912 he helped organize the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association.

By 1914, the first crop of certified seed produced in the US was sold and by 1915, Milward had developed the first published list of certified seed potato farmers. Milward continued to work with potato farmers until his retirement in 1951. He was made a life member of the PAA in 1957.

Certification agencies continue to have the same three goals that Milward and his colleagues established in 1913. They promoted the use of healthy seed by encouraging farmers to plant certified seed, the use of standard named varieties with high yields and predictable performance and development of improved cultural practices among potato farmers.

Yields in Wisconsin increased by over twenty percent within the first years of establishing a certified seed potato program. By the 1920s, the average yield increase across North America was over 20 cwt per acre. This seems small when today’s yields are considered, but at the time, average yields were around 100 cwt/acre, with the best farmers bringing in up to 240 cwt per acre of spuds. Yields of 240 or more cwt per acre (400 bushels per acre) were rare enough that growers who reached this milestone were acknowledged in some regions with membership in the 400 bushel club. Yields increased substantially over the next few decades, with record yields in 1941 nearing 400 cwt/acre and some growers seeing yields of 600 cwt/acre in the 1950s.  

World Wars and Ersatz Seed

Certification became particularly difficult during both world wars, which caused major disruptions to food and labor supplies. In 1917, with World War I on the horizon in the U.S., the USDA named Milward to promote seed potato certification in order to increase potato supplies.

Despite the firm establishment of seed potato certification by the 1940s, seed potato shortages again occurred during World War II. Farmers responded by creating special certification tags for potatoes that would normally be rejected but that were considered sufficient for seed during a time of shortage.                  

During World War II, seed potatoes were not the only thing in short supply. Certification programs also had a hard time finding men capable of certifying potato fields. Agencies considered hiring women during World War II, but, according to minutes of certification meetings published in the American Potato Journal, they decided that the rigors of certification were too difficult for women. Today, of course, we have women inspectors, but seed potato production and certification continues to be mostly a man’s world no matter which country you are in.  

Modern Science and Seed Potatoes

Seed potato production is one of the best examples of the impact of agricultural science on food production. The long time partnership between farmers and researchers allows us to work together to identify problems and work toward solutions.

One example of this is the adoption of pathogen detection methods, which have helped us nearly eliminate diseases, such as bacterial ring rot, from seed potato production. More recently, modern potato breeding methods hold the promise of development of varieties resistant to pathogens that limit seed potato production, such as Potato virus Y. However, agricultural colleges have had declining faculty numbers for the past 30 years and support for agricultural research has also consistently declined for the past generation and as a result, each year we train fewer students in sciences related to potato production. Whether the partnership between farmers and researchers that has benefitted potato production for so long can be sustained is unclear.

Challenges for the Next Century

Seed potato certification quickly became established in North America after being transferred from Europe to the United States in 1913. We have been fortunate that our isolated seed potato production areas have been protected from many pests and diseases found elsewhere in the world. Unfortunately, recent increases in movement of all types of seed has resulted in the spread of many soilborne pests and diseases, which are straining the seed potato certification system. Seed potato certification based on visual inspection is good at controlling a wide range of tuberborne diseases, but it is not very effective for soilborne pathogens. In Europe, extensive and expensive laboratory testing is used for seed certification. Will we again follow Europe by trading our visual inspection protocols for more extensive lab testing or, over the next century, will we find a different path toward growing healthy seed potatoes?

— By Amy Charkowski, Plant pathologist, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Originally posted Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013

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