By JOHN O'CONNELL
To potato breeders in the Pacific Northwest, the annual Tri-State Tour is akin to Christmas morning, explained Brian Charlton, with Oregon State University's Klamath Basin Research & Extension Center.
Experts representing major processors, the USDA's Agricultural Research Service, OSU, Washington State University and University of Idaho over the next few months will scrutinize tens of thousands of new clones at experimental fields in Klamath Falls, Ore., Hermiston, Ore., and Aberdeen, Idaho.
After a year of seeing nothing but foliage, Charlton said breeders get their first glimpses of potato tubers during the tour -- an experience he likens to unwrapping 45,000 gifts.
The tour will mark the end of the line for the vast majority of clones. Less than 2 percent will be flagged by tour participants to continue in the variety development process.
"There's this element that what's underneath has been hidden the whole season. You can't really tell what's going to come up," added Charles Brown, an ARS research geneticist from Prosser, Wash. "All of us have gotten pretty good at judging what's good and what's bad. It's like looking at your children's grades."
A single seed is planted for each clone in the first year of trials. At the Aberdeen ARS facility, tubers from roughly 90,000 first-year clones will be dug and examined -- down from about 150,000 varieties in recent years due to budget cuts. Group members mark the plants they like based on size, shape, color or other traits, and baggers collect the keepers. In the second year, called the 12-hill stage, a dozen seeds are planted from each retained variety to facilitate more in-depth analysis.
Groups will dig and examine spuds from 12-hill plantings in Aberdeen on Sept. 12, and the facility will host inspections of first-year, single-hill crosses Oct. 3-5. The OSU Hermiston Agricultural Research & Extension Center will host its tour on Oct. 9, and the OSU Klamath Basin Research & Extension Center tour is scheduled for Oct. 10-12. Though public participation isn't common, the events are open to the public.
"If there is going to be a promising new potato, this is where they see it for the first time," said Jeanne Debons, executive director of the Potato Variety Management Institute.
It takes at least a decade for the few worthy clones to make it through the entire process and be released as named varieties.
"The Tri-State tours are important in that they bring researchers together with industry representatives with the industry perspective being important in the selection process, especially with new emerging classes of potatoes that industry is interested in for their utilization," said Rich Novy, an Aberdeen breeder.
Charlton said breeders place a premium on resistance to diseases such as potato virus Y, stress tolerance and minimal use of inputs such as fertilizer and water. Processors like high yields, a long size profile for making fries and low sugars for optimal storage. Resistance to nematodes is another trend, he said.
Charlton acknowledged he often wonders how many good varieties are missed in screening but considers the method the most time- and cost-efficient way to evaluate so many clones. The Tri-State breeding program generates more varieties than any other program in the country.