Jan 16, 2024
USDA researchers working toward year-round supply of high-quality potatoes

Scientists at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) are using the latest technology to work toward a high-quality, year-round supply of potatoes for processing facilities, restaurants and grocery stores.

Researchers are studying the life cycle of potatoes, including development, production and postharvest storage, in an effort to address crop production and long-term storage challenges, according to a news release from ARS News Service.

The U.S. produces approximately 22.5 million tons of potatoes annually, according to the release, with 90% of that production taking place during the fall harvesting season. Since many locations cannot support year-round potato cultivation, most potatoes intended for processing, such as frozen french fries or instant mashed potatoes, are harvested in the fall and stored until needed.

Storing and maintaining potatoes at premium nutritional quality while meeting consumer and market demands is essential for the industry.

Proper potato storage is crucial to the operations of growers such as Heartland Farms in Hancock, Wisconsin, which has on-site potato storage capacity of more than 5 million hundredweight. Photo courtesy of Heartland Farms.

However, postharvest crop losses through physiological and disease-related processes routinely reach 10% to 15%, according to the release. The losses are caused by factors including early sprouting as well as slow wound-healing of potato tubers inadvertently damaged during the operational process.

Immediately after harvest and for an indeterminate period thereafter, potato tubers are physiologically dormant and will not sprout, even when placed in growth promoting conditions, according to the release. The length of tuber dormancy period is determined by the genetics of the potato cultivar as well as environmental conditions during the crop production and postharvest storage including temperature, humidity, light and air composition.

Premature sprouting or incomplete wound-healing decreases processing quality and nutritional value, resulting in lower producer prices or market rejection.

Munevver Dogramaci, a research plant physiologist and lead scientist of the Potato Research Program at the Edward T. Schafer Agricultural Research Center in Fargo, North Dakota, and Darrin Haagenson, research plant physiologist at the Potato Research Worksite in East Grand Forks, Minnesota, are working to address these postharvest challenges. The pair are collaborating with growers and universities to evaluate advanced potato breeding material for postharvest storage, food quality and safety characteristics.

Tubers of four Russet potato cultivars (Russet Burbank, Umatilla Russet, Bannock Russet, Dakota Russet) are being monitored under controlled environmental conditions for dormancy progression and sprout growth patterns during postharvest storage. Photo courtesy of Munevver Dogramaci.

“Currently, there is no method that is 100% efficient to control the physical deterioration of the potato tubers during storage,” Dogramaci said in the release. “Potato tubers are at their peak nutritional quality during harvest, but it is essential to store them under specific conditions to maintain this quality.”

Dogramaci said that unintended wounding of tubers such as cuts and bruises can occur during harvest and postharvest operations.

“This results in rapid quality loss that impacts the tuber’s texture, ability to retain water, and an increase in its susceptibility to diseases during storage,” he said.

Potato plants sit in seeding trays in the USDA ARS research greenhouse in Orono, Maine. Photos courtesy of USDA ARS.

Paul Collins, a research geneticist for the ARS Eastern potato breeding program based in Orono and Presque Isle, Maine, is working to develop new varieties for chip processing and table markets with improved agronomic attributes, disease resistance, climate resiliency and quality traits. Successful varieties developed by this program include Atlantic, a variety that is widely grown across the U.S. for potato chips and ranks in the top 10 of most popular potato varieties grown in the nation.

Collins shared details of his research in the November/December issue of Spudman.

“Potato breeding seeks to identify new potato varieties that can provide benefits throughout the value chain,” Collins said in the release. “Farmers can benefit from disease resistance traits, resilience to climate variability and improved yields. Processors and retailers are interested in maintaining quality and uniformity. Consumers are driven by improved nutrition and flavor.

“Within the breeding program, we see huge variability for all of these traits. The challenge and fun of potato breeding is finding a new variety which makes everyone in the value chain happy.”


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