Thoughts for Food #2

Making the perfect potato: the incredible journey.

PotatoWhen you are enjoying a delicious baked potato, take a minute to reflect on where it came from. There is a pretty good chance it was grown in Wisconsin, which ranks 3rd in US potato production.  However, the journey it took to become good enough to get to your plate is a fascinating one. It began several years ago in a lab on the west end of the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, where most of the seed potatoes get their start. Potatoes are really not grown from seeds, but from a daughter tuber that carries all the traits of its mother–the good ones like taste as well as bad ones like their susceptibility to viral diseases.  Wisconsin farmers and researchers learned over a century ago that if seed potatoes were not carefully tended from the beginning, then diseases would quickly reduce crop yields.

To eliminate diseases and produce the best potatoes possible, your potato’s journey begins under the Potatosproutswatchful eye of Dr. Amy Charkowski of the UW-Department of Plant Pathology and Director of the Wisconsin Seed Potato Certification Program.  Amy’s team takes sprouts from only the most beautiful tubers–using over 25 of the most desirable varieties in the United States–and grows them in test tubes as small potato plants.  These “test tube” potatoes are tested for genetic purity and are ensured to be disease-free. The team also maintains pure lines of over seventy heirloom and specialty varieties that can be grown if requested.  These tiny plants, the forerunners of your baked potato, are then cut into four even smaller plantlets that are grown until they have roots and leaves of their own.  Every spring and fall, thousands of these plantlets are driven from Madison to an isolated farm in northern Wisconsin, close to Rhinelander. There they are placed in hydroponic greenhouses, where they can grow and produce hundreds of pea to marble-sized, mini-tubers. Over 400,000 mini-tubers are produced in Wisconsin using this method every year.

Still genetically pure and disease-free, the mini-tubers are stored over the winter and then grown outside on the isolated seed potato farm for an additional one or two years.  Under the watchful eyes of field inspectors Rick Hafner and Kevin Bula, the planted fields are walked daily, and any plants that show even the slightest hint of impurity or disease are quickly removed. The results are fully-grown tubers that are now ready for minituberssale to certified seed growers on the next leg of the journey.

This next phase in the life of your potato occurs on commercial scale potato farms which specialize in growing certified seed potatoes only.  On these farms, the number of tubers is increased many times over, all the while maintaining their disease-free status.  This growing region is located in an isolated area of northeastern Wisconsin where disease carrying insects are rare, making it an ideal location to limit disease or virus introduction into these potatoes.  With the help of Alex Crockford, the program’s other director headquartered in Antigo, the potato seed crops are grown on commercial farms for an additional two to five years before entering the final leg of their incredible journey when samples from each field, the lucky ones, are sent to Florida for the winter.  Here the tubers flourish, and in mid-winter the inspectors do a final assessment of disease and genetic purity, sometimes even involving a CSI-like DNA analysis.  Once the Florida grown seed is proven to be disease free, then fields stored in northern WI receive an official tag that certifies the tubers are suitable for planting on any potato farm or home garden anywhere in North America.

Only those tubers that have completed this amazing journey (often lasting 4-7 years) are deemed good enough to produce your baked potato with the taste, quality and price you expect.  It’s worth it! As Dr. Charkowski relates “America’s most popular baking potato, the Russet Burbank, was bred in the late 1800s and has been propagated in seed certification programs for decades, so essentially I feed my kids pieces of the same plant that their great-great-great-great grandparents ate.”

This is all made possible by the Wisconsin seed potato growers who had the vision in 1905 to work with UW scientists to improve potato quality and production.  By 1913, the growers had established and funded the Wisconsin Seed Potato Certification Program, the first of its kind in North America. By 1917, yield increases were seen and by the 1920s, yields were doubled—all due to simply having access to healthy seed tubers. Each year, approximately $200 million dollars’ worth of potatoes sold in the United States originated as tissue culture plantlets in the Wisconsin Seed Potato Certification Program.

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