Penn State’s Potato Research Program Provides Valuable Information for Industry
UNIVERSITY PARK, PA – Pennsylvania is no couch potato when it comes to producing one of America’s favorite snacks.
The Commonwealth has more potato chip makers than any other state in the United States, according to Robert Leiby, agronomist for Pennsylvania Co-Operative Potato Growers. He said these manufacturers depend on the state’s potato industry, which produces around 83,000 tonnes of potatoes each year, mostly white potatoes used to make the popular snack.
Growers, in turn, depend on the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences Potato Research Program to help improve the quality and quantity of their crops while staying on top of consumption trends.
“Not only is the potato important in our diet, but it is a valuable agricultural asset in Pennsylvania that represents thousands of jobs and an economic impact of more than a billion dollars,” said Leiby, who has spent 37 years as a Penn State Extension educator in Lehigh. County. “This industry is bolstered by scientists and extension educators at Penn State.”
Penn State’s Potato Research Program, led by Xinshun Qu, Associate Research Professor, reports to the Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology.
The team works closely with potato growers to identify commercial potato production and disease issues, and conduct laboratory and field experiments designed to provide critical information to address these issues. Researchers share their findings through the Penn State Extension programs and a publicly available annual report.
“The industry needs early varieties with good chip quality and tolerance to biotic stresses such as disease and abiotic stresses such as heat,” Qu said. “There are new varieties and breeding lines with yield potential and qualities for French fry processing, French fries and table stock use that are being produced by breeding programs in the United States and Canada. The varieties deserve to be evaluated under the environmental conditions and cultivation practices found in Pennsylvania.
In its early years, the program focused on potato breeding. The focus shifted to variety testing and disease management in the mid-1980s based on the recommendation of plant pathologist Barbara Christ, who inherited the program from his predecessors David MacKenzie and Wilford Mills and the led until his retirement in 2018.
His reason for changing the focus of the program boiled down to resources. “We didn’t have the facilities to do the types of crosses that the industry needed,” Christ said. “I thought that supporting established breeding and seed programs through variety testing surveys was a better use of our expertise.”
She was right. After forging collaborations with the United States Department of Agriculture in Beltsville, Maryland, the University of Maine and Cornell University, the Penn State Potato team built its client portfolio to include the facilities of USDA in Idaho, University of Wisconsin, State of Colorado, State of Michigan, and North Carolina. State universities and private companies in the United States and Europe.
The team evaluates around 200 potato varieties / breeding clones in variety assessment trials and between 200 and 400 varieties and clones in disease control trials annually, according to research technologist Mike Peck, which has been part of the program for almost 40 years.
The work takes place at the Russell E. Larson Agricultural Research Center in Rock Springs, Center County, and at producer sites in different parts of the state. “The support we receive from producers makes our program a success,” said Peck. “They understand the importance of our evaluations in helping breeders decide which lines to market as new varieties, which lines to focus on for potential release and which varieties are resistant to disease. “
The team has helped develop more than a dozen popular strains, including Lehigh, named after Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, which served as a strain testing site. The potato offers consistently high yields in a wide variety of growing regions.
Penn State scientists have collaborated with Cornell University to launch two varieties of crisps, Lamoka and Waneta.
“We estimate that Lamoka and Waneta’s potato chip production value for 2020 was over $ 1 billion,” Qu said. “Lamoka is becoming the most widely grown recently marketed variety in the United States”
The team is currently helping assess how another consumer favorite, the Russet potato, grows in the Pennsylvania climate. Russets tend to be larger than traditional white potatoes and are a top choice for baking, mashing and fries, Qu said.
All growers benefit from Penn State’s research and education, noted Keith Masser, president and CEO of Sterman Masser Potato Farms, an eight-generation family operation based in Schuylkill County. The company grows and packages a wide range of potato varieties for national retailers.
Without Penn State, producers would be at a disadvantage, Masser said, especially small farms that lack the resources to conduct research.
“Larger operations could conduct their own studies, but their findings would be exclusive and not shared with others,” said Masser, a Penn State alumnus and former chairman of the Penn State Board of Trustees who is a staunch supporter. of the program, college and university. “Penn State is a valuable and indispensable partner. “
Christ accepted, commending past and current researchers, field technicians, graduate students, and producers for their dedication.
“They are on top,” she said. “It was gratifying to work with people who have done their best to improve the industry at all levels. “