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Idaho Extension improves visual quality and nutrients in fresh market potatoes

When Mike Thornton gets together with his brothers, Sam and Rob, you can count on potatoes being part of their conversation.

The Thornton boys grew up in a potato environment.

Their father, Robert is a professor emeritus of Horticulture from Washington State University. He was the state’s vegetable extension specialist from the late 1960s to his retirement four years ago.

"I still remember as a kid going out and tromping around in potato fields with my dad," said Mike Thornton while sitting in his office at the University of Idaho’s Parma Research and Extension Center.

Those days of youth spent in potato fields with their father must have had a cumulative effect on the all three boys. Mike is the superintendent of the Southwest Idaho Research and Extension Center and an associate professor of plant sciences at the University of Idaho, Sam works at Syngenta Seed Treatment and Rob runs his own consulting business.

"It’s kind of been a family deal," said Mike referring to his brothers and his chosen field of interest, "it’s fun to go to meetings and see all of them."

A lot has changed in the potato industry since those days stomping through potato fields with his dad but one thing remains the same, you can still find Mike Thornton working in the hilled fields, working towards bringing new varieties of potatoes to growers and eventually to consumers.

On a bright, warm autumn day in southwest Idaho Thornton has just finished harvesting the varieties for 2008. Here in Parma they are heavily involved in western regional trials that come out of the Washington, Oregon and Idaho breeding programs.

"We’re one of about eight states that does trials with these varieties for two or three years to help make the decision, is it good enough, is it regionally adapted enough to be something that we ought to release and get to the industry," Thornton said, explaining the final stage of what can be a 12- to 15-year process.

According to Thornton the initial process often begins in a cooperative venture with Washington State University, Oregon State University, the University of Idaho, the USDA and breeders like Rich Novy at the Aberdeen, Idaho, station where they will cross two potato parents and plant them out.

Breeders are looking for genetic sources of resistance to pests and traits like low sugar development in storage to allow for colder storage, thereby reducing sprouting problems.

Throughout the breeding and development process researchers are working closely with both the process and fresh-pack growers to get their input and keep the growers abreast on what future varieties might be released.

"I think that’s what really makes that program function so well," Thornton said, "you have industry input during the entire period."

Yet, if you’re working on a 12- to 15-year timetable, how do you anticipate consumer trends? That’s the conundrum facing researchers and growers. there’s a dual nature to the development of a potato, Thornton said: the agronomic piece and the consumer piece.

"Which pests are important, which diseases do we need to focus on? Do we need to have late blight resistance or virus resistance? Those things are relatively easy to focus on because we know what the current problems are," Thornton said.

Whereas consumer preferences 10 years from now are a little more difficult to anticipate.

"Are they still going to want russeted skin variety? Are they going to want a really light-colored fry, has become the industry standard," Thornton said.

Focus groups have reinforced the demand for quality, he said, and the current standard for french fries with no defects and uniform color will not change.

The one area Thornton feels the industry has to improve on is in flavor, and this is where the specialty varieties that are currently in development may attract consumers. Thornton sees the potential for the colored skin and colored flesh varieties but they have to taste good and look good after cooking.

"I think it’s both about appeal and in the end, taste," Thornton said.

"You know after I cook it, does it taste as good as it looks? You know if consumers don’t like the taste or the way that it conforms after you’ve processed it or cook it, you know it’s never going to go anywhere," he said.

At the same time that they are developing visually attractive potatoes, USDA researchers at Prosser, Wash., led by Chuck Brown and Roy Navarre, are exploring how to improve the nutrient content of potatoes.

"How do we increase the iron content in potatoes so it’s more nutritionally sound? How do we increase key anti-oxidants that consumers would see as health benefits?" Thornton said.

The newest potato to be introduced is the Yukon Gem in 2006. It is similar in appearance to the Yukon Gold: a whitish yellow skin and a yellow colored flesh.

"It grows a little better than Yukon Gold, so it’s a little more grower friendly in terms of yield," Thornton said. "It seems to yield better, have a better uniform tuber size, so you don’t get those great big ones that consumers don’t know what to do with, but it also has very good culinary quality when it is cooked."

Another potato that could be introduced this winter, is one Thornton tentatively calls the Huckleberry Gold. The potato has not been officially named, but Thornton feels it is ready for introduction and could be approved this winter when the Potato Advisory committee meets in Aberdeen, Idaho.

Thornton describes the Huckleberry as a "nice blue to purple skin and a really nice bright yellow flesh and it really looks attractive when you cook it up," he said.

Additionally, growers will like the potato because it yields well and produces a good, uniform size, he said.
As the potato industry introduces these new, colorful potatoes, Thornton said the apple market is a marketing model the potato industry should follow.

"If you look at the apple market, you can get a really wide diversity of apple varieties, and they’re all labeled by variety and use. You know – this one is really tart and good in pies, this one is great fresh – and I see us kind of going that way with potatoes," Thornton said.

"We could have a selection in the grocery store that would have the information that would tell the consumers that this one is really good boiled or this one is good baked, this one makes really good french fries. You know, give consumers more choices and more appealing products that they can make out of different variety selections."

Beyond the new varieties, another project that Thornton is very excited about is in manipulating the physiological age of seed in two varieties. The initial work was conducted by researchers at Washington State University, but Thornton has been working with Kimberly station researchers Nora Olsen and Phil Nolte for the past three years and he believes they have the data to present a very good model.

"We warm up the seed right after harvest," Thornton said, explaining the process, "then cool the potatoes down, in the spring. It’s basically acting like an older seed piece. It’ll produce four stems per plant instead of two or three."

Growers will have smaller potatoes but more of them. They’ll have the same yield but more evenly distributed across the sizes that growers, processors and the fresh pack industry want.

Thornton sees this as a major development for seed growers.

"If we could increase their set, get the same yield but more potatoes in that ideal size range for a seed producer, he may even be able to increase his seed production using the same seeding rate," Thornton said. "I think this is dynamite information for seed producers in terms of producing their own crop."

Originally posted Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2008

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