By JOHN O'CONNELL
KIMBERLY, Idaho -- In Xiyao Wang's Sichuan Province of Southern China, professional farmers hand harvest seed potatoes from home garden-sized fields and pile spuds in caves or their own guest bedrooms for storage.
Following a three-month scientific exchange with the University of Idaho, Wang, a potato researcher at Sichuan Agricultural University, expects to return home with knowledge to improve her region's production methods. Her hosts at the U of I's Kimberly Research & Extension Center say Wang has also made contributions to their understanding of storage management and the crop disease zebra chip.
U of I Extension potato storage specialist Nora Olsen learned the Chinese make a powder from an invasive species, commonly called Crofton weed, to suppress sprouting in seed potatoes.
"That's a potential application we need to look at as a sprout inhibitor," Olsen said.
Wang was intrigued by zebra chip, a potato disease the Chinese don't have that arrived in the Pacific Northwest in 2011. To better understand why plants seldom grow from infected spuds, Wang applied varying rates of sprout-stimulating hormones to samples with zebra chip. Olsen was surprised to learn the research had never been done.
Jeff Suttle, with the USDA's Agricultural Research Service in Fargo, N.D., has agreed to continue the project Wang started.
Sichuan Province, known for its wild panda bears, is the largest potato province in China, which is the world's top potato producing nation. While most farmers in her area work just a fraction of an acre each, growing seed for the fresh market, processors have factories to the north, where there are large, corporate farms with some modern equipment.
Sichuan Province is much warmer and wetter than Idaho -- farmers rely predominantly on natural moisture -- and producers can harvest three spud crops per year.
Wang said the Chinese public loves potatoes, called "earthquake food" in her province. She explained after a bad earthquake in 2008, spuds were the first crop available and provided sustenance for the public.
"The amount of (Chinese) people who eat potatoes is going up," Wang said.
Unlike in the U.S., where growers make substantial monetary contributions to crop research, Chinese agricultural scientists get all of their funding from the government. Wang was impressed by the level of discourse between U.S. scientists and farmers and hopes to emphasize such communication in China.
"I find Idaho potato scientists have a good working relationship with farmers. Nora Olsen often comes to potato meetings to talk about potato research work and talk about farmers' problems," Wang said. "That's very effective when farmers often have the chance to talk with scientists. In our university, we teach students in the classes but don't often come to farmers' fields."
When she heads home at the end of April, Wang said she'll also be better prepared to train farmers to use computer technology to improve their operations.
"She was very impressed that all of those (Idaho) farmers had iPads and laptops in front of them," Olsen said. "She just couldn't believe the level of sophistication of our farmers."