Scientists with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service potato genetics program in Aberdeen, Idaho, were granted special permission to return to work during the government shutdown, potentially preventing the loss of unique breeding material, according to ARS sources speaking on background.
Based on concerns that potato breeding clones could freeze in the field or that roots within flats of experimental spud seedlings awaiting transplant would intertwine, the request was sent Oct. 4 to grant the scientists permission to resume their research. They were allowed to return to work the following week, well before Congress voted to re-open the government on Oct. 17.
University of Idaho staff aided the federal employees in transplanting 35,000 seedlings and selecting clones from fields to retain in the Tri-State Potato Breeding Program, a partnership of UI, Oregon State University, Washington State University and ARS researchers.
Sources say the team’s first priority was harvesting a field in Swan Valley, Idaho, leased from a private grower to increase the breeding program’s seed supplies. Sources say the ability to commence work before the resolution of the shutdown helped to mitigate what could have been substantial losses.
Individual federal scientists have been asked to have any public statements pertaining to the effects of the shutdown pre-approved through the USDA, but they’ve been allowed to describe the science behind their research.
Rich Novy, a breeder at the Aberdeen ARS facility, explained the breeding process starts in early January with about 200 parent potato plants used to produce hybrids through routine pollination. True seeds from the resulting berries are saved for growing trays of seedlings, which are later replanted in individual pots to yield tubers for planting in the field.
Jeanne Debons, executive director of the Potato Variety Management institute, is glad no research clones were lost in the field, but she believes the shutdown has affected the program nonetheless. She considers it unfortunate that federal breeders from the three participating states missed the opportunity to aid one another in making selections.
She noted Chuck Brown, an ARS breeder from Prosser, Wash., didn’t get to see the fruits of his own work as Oregon State University had to perform field selections of his clones without his input.
“It just sounded like chaos. When the government does things like this, it affects things long term,” Debons said. “In Idaho, they rely on everyone being there, and the USDA was rushed, just trying to get it done rather than giving it the attention it needed.”
In Oregon and Washington, sources say no material was lost from the potato breeding program due to the shutdown, but hard frosts have hurt fields of litchi tomato — under research as a so-called trap crop to stimulate hatching of pale cyst nematode in the absence of a viable food source — and data will likely be less complete.