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Facility has looked at potato storage issues for more than 20 years

At the University of Idaho’s research storage facility in Kimberly, Nora Olsen has been overseeing the best methods of potato storage for almost 10 years. She also has responsibilities for potato production in south central Idaho but her primary focus is storage research.

"Most of my research is directed toward storage but recently we started a project looking at organic production of potatoes, so I’m involved in that," Olsen said. "We always have a field component to our field research and extension programs, but again, the majority of it has to do with storage," she said from her office on the campus of the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls.

Olsen said there are five areas of storage research.

"The first looks at new varieties. How some of these new varieties or number lines that haven’t been named yet, how they respond to varying storage environments. What’s the best temperature? When will they break dormancy? You need to make sure you have a sprout inhibitor on them before that time," she said.

The second area is in disease control, where their research includes both chemical applications and natural practices.

“We look at chemicals that would be applied to the potato to help decrease or minimize disease damage in storage. Obviously when it’s being applied to a potato that is going to be destined to the consumer fairly quickly, within several months, you have to be always concerned with the level of safety of the product you’re applying on the potato. EPA is not going to allow the registration of very many chemicals and so we really don’t have that much to go on, but we’ve been able to identify a few products that are very safe, very easy to work with and do a good job of controlling specific diseases," Olsen said.

"But we also look at natural practices in storage. What can we do to decrease temperatures or decrease curing temperature? That’s the temperature that you first put the potatoes in when you want to cure them and establish wound healing for the potato. It’s the first couple weeks of the potatoes life in storage, essentially. Can we manipulate that a little bit? Can we really decrease humidity and give ourselves some benefit for disease control?" she said.

Number three is sprout inhibition.

"We have one product that is called CIPC that has been around for many years. It’s an extremely good product,” Olsen said, but she cautioned that the singular use of CIPC could prove detrimental one day. “We don’t want to put all of our eggs in one basket, one kind of chemical, to keep us sprout-free. We want to identify other products that may able to be used and so we spend a lot of time looking at complete alternatives to CIPC. We’ve looked at essential oils, like mint oil, clove oil and sage oil. All of that to see if these can be effective. We’ve also looked at combinations of the two. Can we mix things with CIPC or can we use CIPC first at a lower rate and then come in with another product. We’re just trying to extend our tools or enhance our tools for sprout inhibition," said Olsen.

The fourth research area is seed storage.

"We like to look at how your seed is going to perform out in field and storage will have a major component on how it performs in the field. It will influence what we call physiological age of the seed. So the warmer you keep the seed, essentially the older it’s going to be. Then it will react a certain way out in the field, although it’s going to be dependent on variety. Typically, with the physiologically older seed you’re going to get more stem numbers and more stem numbers generally equate to more potatoes underground but they’re going to be smaller size. So you can change or manipulate the size of your harvested potatoes based upon how you’ve aged your seed. So we really try to look at these correlations between seed storage, physiological age and seed performance," she said.

The final area of research Olsen looks at is overall quality management.

"The ultimate goal is maintaining quality at the highest level possible. We’re concerned with shrinkage with the fresh market, aesthetics and how they look in sprouting. And quality for process potatoes. We really do a lot of work on minimizing sugar concentrations in the potato," she said.

The 20-year-old storage facility began as a collective effort between growers and chemical companies, and Olsen said she’d like to grow the current facility. "We’d love to expand out. We have to turn down research every year. There’s just such a demand for storage research," she said during a tour of the facility.

Originally posted Tuesday, Jul. 29, 2008

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