Northwest breeders, producers look for efficiencies amid scarce resources
By DAVE WILKINS
Shrinking ag research budgets have caught the attention of Northwest spud growers.
University budget cutbacks in particular have prompted producers to examine ways to make potato breeding and research more efficient, grower representatives said.
Consolidation of some resources in Idaho, Oregon and Washington may be necessary if a regional public breeding program is to continue.
"I think what will come out of this is a stronger, leaner, meaner program," Chris Voigt, executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission, said during a session of the Idaho Grower Shippers Association annual meeting Sept. 2 in Sun Valley.
For years Idaho, Oregon and Washington have cooperated in a tri-state potato variety development program conducted by plant breeders at the University of Idaho, Oregon State University, Washington State University and the USDA's Agricultural Research Service.
But state and federal funding sources have come under intense scrutiny in the down economy.
The University of Idaho is mulling whether to close three research and extension centers, including two that conduct some potato research at Parma and Tetonia.
The future of some OSU research stations in Central and Eastern Oregon is also uncertain, industry officials said.
It's not just university budgets that are a problem. Federal ag research dollars will be harder to come by with the U.S. government mired in deficits for the foreseeable future.
"It's going to be hard to get new funds," Voigt said. "We have to become as efficient as we can with what we have."
So far, the three state potato commissions haven't advanced any specific consolidation proposals. They want to talk with their university partners first and do a thorough evaluation of resources to see where consolidation might be possible.
"We're committed to any long-range planning process that the three states can organize," said Andy Jensen, director of research for the Washington commission. While the three states have a history of cooperation in potato breeding, they have also competed fiercely for spud acres and markets.
At times in the past, the relationship has been more hostile than cooperative, said Patrick Kole, vice president of government affairs for the Idaho Potato Commission.
Today's harsh economic reality necessitates cooperation, he said.
"Our only strength is working together," Kole told growers at the Sun Valley meeting.
Staff writer Dave Wilkins is based in Twin Falls, Idaho. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Information about the tri-state potato variety development program and upcoming field tours of new cultivars is available from the Potato Variety Management Institute: www.pvmi.org