MOSCOW, Idaho — Jenny Durrin and her team in the University of Idaho Seed Potato Germplasm Program recently shifted to hydroponic production, which aims to increase control over growing conditions and boost yields.
UI establishes, maintains and distributes disease-free germplasm and mini-tubers for domestic and international seed-potato growers and researchers.
Durrin said hydroponic methods take an average of 30% less time to produce the seed-potato starting material and yield about 70% more.
Plants are placed into sterile perlite as a growing medium and get all nutrients from liquid. Productivity is higher and disease risk much lower compared to an earlier system that used a peat-based, soil-less planting medium and time-release fertilizer.
The nutrient solution can be customized, such as for a certain crop or variety, or to meet specific needs at different points in the growing season, Durrin said.
“With this, we are able to decrease the amount of time for each crop, and we are getting higher yields,” she said.
“It’s all on a timer,” Durrin said. “Sequence and timing vary throughout the crop. Our crops are only about three months long.”
Plantlets are multiplied in a laboratory — to be replaced and expanded this summer — and transplanted in the separate, recently remodeled greenhouse. The first crop to develop from start to finish in the remodeled greenhouse was planted in April.
By manipulating the mix of plant nutrients in the hydroponic solution, the system encourages the plants to put on luxurious green growth, the UI College of Agricultural and Life Sciences said in a release.
Additional manipulations to the nutrient solution’s composition encourage plants to start producing tiny tubers.
The system advances a production process for disease-free seed potatoes that Lorie Ewing, who retired from UI four years ago, pioneered. Hydroponics is not new for seed potatoes, Durrin said.
UI uses an ebb-and-flow system. In the main greenhouse, pump-equipped tanks of nutrient solution flood the plant-containing trays above. The trays, which look like tables, are then drained.
She said the more common nutrient-film technique produces mini-tubers that differ in physiological age but are consistent in size. The ebb-and-flow approach produces tubers that vary in size but are the same physiological age, making for consistent emergence and harvest times.
She said the hydroponic changeover in UI’s Moscow-based program posed challenges including setting up test systems and proving concepts for both approaches, and researching and formulating nutrient solutions.