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Health Traits May Drive Future Potato Research

Communicating the healthful aspects of potatoes can help return the vegetable to its rightful place of prominence on North American dinner plates, a Colorado State University researcher said.

David Holm said he feels there's even an opportunity to enhance the potato's dietary value through traditional breeding.

It's already recognized that some of the colored varieties contain higher levels of antioxidants that help prevent disease, Holm said. Breeding programs also could take into account vitamin availability and other beneficial aspects of the tubers.

"I think the thing I see shifting is that we'll be looking more and more at the health aspects of potatoes,” said Holm, who works at the university's San Luis Valley Research Center. “In the future, I think there will be more interest in the health aspects of all produce."

"There are fads (like low-carbohydrate diets) that come and go,” he said. “I think that once more legitimate information is put out, people will understand the nutritional aspects of potatoes and get past the fads. They will listen."

Growers and other potato industry sectors may be able to take advantage. Varieties with specific health traits could be differentiated in the marketplace through label information, Holm said.

There might already be an opportunity to sell the health benefits of some of the recently released varieties from the research center – even though this wasn't a primary focus when the breeding work began more than a decade ago, he said.

Development of the Purple Majesty, with its purple skin and flesh, and the Mountain Rose, with its red skin and flesh, began after it was suggested by a seed grower that there was a potential market for colored chipping varieties.

Both varieties have enhanced chipping storage characteristics, especially when processed as kettle chips, but they can be cooked in other ways. Holm said Purple Majesty was served mashed, along with other varieties, at a recent seed seminar in Colorado Springs.

"When they prepared them (the Purple Majesty potatoes), they turned a nice lavender color," he said.

Purple Majesty was developed from a cross between All Blue and a white chipping variety. Along with having a yield potential of close to 500 sacks per acre, the potato's flesh is actually darker than All Blue's and the No. 1 percentage is substantial.

Mountain Rose was developed from a cross between All Red and a white chipping variety. The yield potential is acceptable – around 400 sacks – and the variety produces an even higher percentage of No. 1 potatoes than Purple Majesty, Holm said.

Both colored varieties represent niche opportunities for growers.

The San Luis center has also released two varieties that have a chance to claim a significant part of the commercial acreage, Holm said.

Rio Grande Russet has performed well in trials with a yield potential around 500 sacks.

"It produces a high percentage of number ones and it has a high yield potential," Holm said.

Colorado Rose, with red skin and white flesh, has similar attributes.

"It has fairly good color retention in storage, which can be a problem with reds," Holm said.

There has been past success at the San Luis Valley Research Center.

Centennial Russet, named for Colorado's 100th anniversary in 1976, was released just before Holm arrived at the center 27 years ago. It caught on, and once accounted for nearly 70 percent of Colorado's potato acreage.

Russet Norkotah, another popular variety, was developed at North Dakota State University. Clonal selections – essentially from natural mutations – were made at the San Luis Valley center, resulting in plants that were more vigorous, matured later, and required considerably less nitrogen.

Russet Nugget, named by the San Luis Valley breeding team, once accounted for 40 percent of the acreage in the region.

All potential varieties are assessed for a variety of agronomic factors before being released. The final measure, however, is left to commercial growers who determine which ones have the best chance of consistently earning them a profit.

There are two major growing areas in Colorado – the San Luis Valley, which has about 90 percent of the acreage, and the smaller region in northern Colorado.

The San Luis Valley growing region, where as many as 78,000 acres of potatoes have been grown, lies in the shadow of mountains to the west, necessitating the extensive use of irrigation. Groundwater, which originates from the snowmelt, is used for this purpose.

Farm size in Colorado is often related to the center-pivot method of irrigation. Pivot systems – or circles – typically contain 130 acres.

There are some single-circle growers, Holm said. Others manage 10 circles or more.

The average production for the region is about 360 cwt. per acre.

At 7,800 feet above sea level, there are about 90 frost-free days in the San Luis Valley. The light intensity is higher than at lower altitudes.

Holm was raised on an Idaho potato farm. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from University of Idaho and his doctorate from the University of Minnesota.

Originally posted Saturday, Apr. 7, 2007

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