Potato researchers seek new fresh pack varieties

Matthew Weaver/Capital Press Washington State University research assistant Rhett Spear provides an update on efforts to find a new fresh pack potato variety during the Washington Oregon Potato Conference Jan. 30 in Kennewick, Wash.

KENNEWICK, Wash. — Researchers are testing new potatoes to replace the leading fresh pack variety.

The Russet Norkotah is fairly uniform with good yields and economic return, said Rhett Spear, Washington State University research assistant. But it’s also susceptible to Potato Virus Y and to verticillium wilt. The variety has poor flesh color and flavor after long periods in storage.

Researchers in Pacific Northwest trials examine new varieties for economic value, even distribution of sizes, good yields, culinary attributes and storage capability, comparing them with varieties commonly grown in the Columbia Basin. The study includes taste tests at WSU.

Spear expects the Norkotah to remain the top fresh pack variety until researchers can find something that will appeal to growers and consumers.

“It’s just a matter of growers picking them up or having the desire to learn how to grow them,” he said. “They know how to grow Norkotah; they have all the kinks worked out. It’s just the fear of change, of growing something new, having to learn it all over again.”

It can take up to 10 years to tell whether the industry will accept a new variety, said Mark Pavek, WSU associate professor and research extension horticulturist.

“The first time they grow it, they may not be used to it. It may not do very well, so they may decide, ‘I don’t like it’ and they may drop it,” he said. “Someone else may do (well) with it, and keep going with it. The guy that dropped it may decide to come back to it, after he sees his neighbors having luck with it.”

The availability of seed for new potato varieties is a factor, requiring increases each year, Pavek said.

Spear received a scholarship from the National Potato Council in October 2013 for his research.

Growers could potentially make more money using the newer varieties, some of which have fewer virus concerns and improved yields, Spear said. He hopes they keep an open mind and consider trying new varieties on a small patch of land.

“Saying, ‘Oh, people like to eat it more’ probably isn’t enough for a grower to switch over,” he said. “There has to be something that’s going to encourage them to do it.”

Pavek said fresh pack evaluation will continue in some form as long as variety development is ongoing.

He said varieties need to be more efficient, maintain profitability and compete on the global market.

“It’s just like any other business, you can’t sit idle,” he said.  “If we don’t keep on our toes, another country will soon be producing our potatoes for us.”

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