Beauty of new potato varieties is not only skin deep

Dan Hane, research agronomist at the Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center, talks about different varieties of potatoes Monday to a selection crew from the Tri-State Potato Variety Development Program at HAREC in Hermiston.<br><I>Staff photo by E.J. Harris

The search for the perfect potato, it seems, is a never-ending quest.

Of thousands of new varieties that are introduced each year into the Tri-State Potato Variety Development Program - a cooperative of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho potato experts - only a few actually make it into grower's fields.

Potatoes that are large and well-shaped, with high yields and the ability to store well, have an advantage, but there's no guarantee they will make it through the trials.

"It's not just a search for perfection," said Jeff Stark, an agronomist at the University of Idaho. "We also look for varieties that use less water, less fertilizer and have disease resistance."

Stark was in town Monday at the Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center as part of the Tri-State Selection Tour, a group of potato scientists and producers who are traveling to five towns in Oregon and Idaho to pick their favorite varieties - a sort of inland vacation cruise for potato lovers.

It can take 15 years for a new potato variety to make it to the commercial market, and, of course, different potatoes are used for different products. The future of the potato, Stark said, lies in the "niche market." Whereas the Russet- Burbank (the most commonly used potato for french fries) is a one-size-fits-all potato, the new varieties allow producers to specifically grow potatoes that are best for the intended product. One variety may be perfect for crinkle-cut potato chip, for example, while another would be best for steak fries (known, for some reason, as jo-jos in Eastern Oregon).

"We look for shapes, sizes and colors, but we also are looking at the chemical composition, such as high levels of antioxidants," said Isabel Vales, a potato breeder and geneticist at Oregon State University.

Genetic makeup also plays a role in the success of a variety, she said. Scientists have discovered the genetic marker for "sweetening resistance," or the gene that slows down the transition from starch to sugar in potatoes during storage. Processors favor potatoes that are high in starch, Vales explained, because they hold their light color after frying.

Other potatoes are genetically resistant to certain diseases or pests.

"The challenge is to combine them - a resistance to pests or disease with a preferred quality," Vales said.

Steve James, a scientist with Oregon State University, said another problem the potato industry faces is one that scientists can't solve: public opinion.

"Research has shown that consumption of fresh potatoes has been on a decline for years," he said.

James said the perceived bad effect of carbs, and the time it takes to prepare a potato, are to blame. One study has shown the average meal-making person in a household spends about 12 minutes preparing a meal, he said.

"Potatoes don't fit into that mold," he added.

James said processors are developing potato dishes that can be microwaved, and fresh-pack producers are focusing more on specialty potatoes, such as those with an increased nutritional content or an interesting color.

When potatoes were first cultivated in central and South America, James said, they bore little resemblance to the uniformly brown and oblong vegetables you see in the supermarket today.

"If you look at pictures of what the Incas grew, you see all these colors - yellows, purples, reds and blues," he said.

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