European sabbatical could help Idaho potato industry

Sean Ellis/Capital Press Mike Thornton, superintendent of University of Idaho's Parma research station, slices open potatoes in November, shortly after his return from a six-month sabbatical in Europe. Thornton said the trip could result in an exchange of germplasm between Europe and the United States and improved potato cultivars that are more resistant to weather-related stress.

PARMA, Idaho — An Idaho potato researcher’s six-month sabbatical in Europe could result in an exchange of germplasm and technology between European and U.S. potato breeders.

It could also help U.S. researchers better understand how to screen for stress-resistant cultivars that can withstand drought and extreme heat.

“I’m really excited about being able to do that,” said Doug Gross, a process potato grower near Wilder, Idaho. “We have a lot of hope in new genetics helping us become better at what we do.”

During his stay in Europe, Mike Thornton, superintendent of the University of Idaho’s Parma Research and Extension Center, evaluated how European potato researchers are using native germplasm from South America to develop specialty potato cultivars with stress tolerance.

Thornton stayed in Europe from May to October and visited research centers in Spain, Turkey, Holland and Poland.

Thornton will soon release a report about the trip, and Idaho Potato Commission President and CEO Frank Muir said the Idaho spud industry will be interested in reading it.

“We think the world of Mike Thornton at the Idaho Potato Commission; he has contributed in many, many ways to our research efforts,” Muir said. “We’re interested in learning about anything Mike gained from his experience there.”

Muir and Gross both said they’re most interested in learning about Thornton’s experience evaluating how European researchers are using germplasm from native potato species to develop varieties well adapted to weather-related stress.

A lot of the varieties have wild combinations of skin and flesh color, Thornton said, but some of them are resistant to heat and drought stress.

“I wanted to see how they are using that germplasm … and whether it has some commercial potential for the U.S. potato industry,” he said. “I think there are more opportunities in the U.S. to do more breeding and evaluation for drought and heat stress tolerance.”

Thornton said his trip could result in a germplasm exchange between European researchers and the USDA potato breeding program in Aberdeen, Idaho.

“That’s exciting,” Gross said. “On our own farm, our biggest yield and quality increases have come from genetic changes.”

Thornton said the process of screening native species has resulted in the development of several new cultivars with unique combinations of flesh and skin colors.

“We’re all looking for niche market things that are unique … that would be exciting to consumers, so I think there are some real possibilities there,” he said.

In the U.S., potato breeding is dominated by public universities and government agencies and Thornton went to Europe expecting to find a potato breeding model dominated almost completely by private industry.

“I really found … more of a mixed public-private partnership, which I think we’re starting to see in United States,” he said. “I really wanted to see how that model is going to look here in the future maybe.”

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