Montana State University

Spring 2017

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Mountains and Minds

This spud's for you June 06, 2017 by Evelyn Boswell • Published 06/06/17

Potato grower Dan Lake of Ronan considers himself one lucky man, a Montanan who gets to eat potatoes almost every day and work with his daughter and three brothers in the family business.

Any time he wants, he can go to McDonald’s and order french fries that might have started out as one of his russets.
And Montana State University can say it played a significant role in his good fortune.

Not only did the four Lake brothers and Dan’s daughter, Bridgett Cheff, earn their degrees at MSU, but they are also among the 50 growers (many of whom are MSU graduates) who built Montana’s seed potato industry into a $50-60 million enterprise in partnership with the MSU Potato Lab and Montana Seed Potato Certification Program.

The seed potatoes, growers and laboratory alike have gained widespread reputations for excellence.

“Montana is one of the most popular seed potato states, if not the most popular seed potato state,” said Willem Schrage, who served 16 years on a United Nations subcommittee for creating uniform standards for seed potato certification. He also retired in 2016 as director of North Dakota potato programs.

And while neighboring states often claim they are the best source for premium potatoes, MSU scientists say that Montana-grown seed potatoes are at the root of such excellence.

Nina Zidack, director of the MSU Potato Lab and Montana Seed Potato Certification Program, said commercial growers across the Pacific Northwest, particularly the Columbia Basin area of Washington and Oregon, buy seed potatoes from Montana. Then they plant those potatoes and sell them to commercial outlets. McDonald’s buys more potatoes than anyone in the world and says its “epic” french fries are born from premium potatoes. Lake said McDonald’s accepts only a few varieties of potatoes and most of those are russets.

Potatoes low in moisture and high in solids—which russets are—make good french fries because they fry up “nice and crispy,” Zidack explained. She added that 95 percent of the total potato acreage in Montana is some type of russet. In 2015, almost half of the acreage was Russet Burbank.

Nina Zidack in a potato field.

Montana has approximately 10,400 acres planted in seed potatoes. The largest growing areas are around Manhattan and Amsterdam in Gallatin County. Other significant areas are in Beaverhead, Madison, Broadwater, Lake and Flathead counties.

Another reason that Montana seed potatoes have a reputation for quality is because the state has the nation’s strictest regulations for producing seed potatoes, Zidack continued.

“We have a closed system,” she said. “We don’t allow seed potatoes to come in from any other states. We are geographically isolated from any commercial farms. ... We only have seed potatoes in Montana that originate in the MSU Potato Lab. And, growers outside Montana also purchase seed potatoes from Montana to be re-certified as seed in their own state.”

Other contributing factors are the relative isolation of Montana’s fields, the cold weather and the fact that many fields are at high elevation, Zidack said. Winters and the isolation provided by the mountains help control pests. The distance between growing areas cuts down on the transmission of diseases.

“Because of that, Montana is recognized through the industry for growing the cleanest (most disease-free) seed potatoes in the United States,” Zidack said.

What does the Potato Lab do?

Zidack and her team at the MSU Potato Lab work indoors and outdoors, in state and out of state to ensure that Montana seed potatoes are 100 percent disease-free and continue to be of the highest quality.

“From the certification perspective, they run a good program,” said Kent Sather, director of potato programs in North Dakota. “The (Montana) growers that I know are really tuned into what needs to be done and certainly support it.”

Every summer, Zidack and research assistant Eileen Carpenter lead four other inspectors into the seed potato fields of Montana to look for signs of disease, insect problems and varietal purity. Since some diseases are hard to detect, the crew also picks leaves for later analysis. Concurrently, a team of approximately 20 MSU and high school students pick leaves from farmers’ fields for testing.

Back at the lab, laboratory supervisor Susie Siemsen’s team performs tests on the leaves, looking specifically for viruses that reduce yield and cause mosaic patterns on potato leaves. One of the primary diseases the lab addresses is potato mosaic disease, which is caused by the potato virus Y, known as PVY. The most destructive disease is late blight, which is caused by a fungus and can lead to epidemics.

The MSU Potato Lab is continually testing new methods to improve testing for diseases and looking for new ways to help growers grow disease-free potatoes, Zidack said. The lab is currently cooperating in a USDA-funded Specialty Crops Research Initiative project on potato viruses. The MSU Potato Lab has been tasked with developing methods to more accurately and economically test tubers for PVY as an alternative to a postharvest field growout. Last year, MSU plant pathology professor Dave Sands’ lab identified some low-glycemic potatoes approved for diabetics, including the Huckleberry Gold variety.

Research assistants in the Montana Seed Potato Certification lab collect sprouts that will be tested for disease.

The Potato Lab even encourages Montana gardeners to protect the state’s seed potato industry by growing only varieties that have been certified disease-free. Certified seed potatoes grow better potatoes than potatoes bought in a grocery store or potatoes left over from previous seasons, Zidack said. She explained that potatoes sold in grocery stores are often treated to restrict the sprouting of tubers. More importantly, they may come from other states and carry virus diseases and tuber- and soil-borne pests. Specialty seed potatoes ordered from catalogs may come from areas that have frequent outbreaks of late blight and higher levels of virus disease. To help gardeners decide what to grow, the lab provides a wholesale directory that currently shows and describes 27 certified varieties and lists their suppliers. The directory can be found online on the lab’s webpage:

“The garden seed distribution network has really taken off in Montana,” Zidack said. “Last year we distributed over 30,000 pounds.”

Some of those varieties offered to Montana gardeners include the Russet Burbank—“the most widely grown all-purpose potato in the United States,” according to the lab. Another is the Mozart, which resists common scab and has “distinct yellow eyes and an attractive sunrise red skin.” The Purple Viking has “deep purple skin dappled with pink splashes and stripes.” The All Blue, with its deep blue to almost purple skin and brilliant purple flesh, is excellent steamed, mashed, microwaved, roasted and chipped. It is often used to make blue potato chips.

“It’s been a great industry to be involved in,” said Lake, who is the co-owner of Lake Seed Inc. near Ronan. Lake served as president of the National Potato Council in 2015 and became immediate past president in January 2017. From 2012 to 2014, he was the council’s vice president of its environmental affairs committee.

“I have been in it for over 30 years. It really represents some of the best people in the world.”

Proud to be a Spudwoman

Long before Jessica Rupp became an MSU Extension specialist and potato researcher, she rated the restaurants in her Kansas hometown according to their french fries.

“I never met a potato I didn’t like,” said Rupp, who not only likes potatoes for their taste but their nutrition. A bumper sticker on her office door reads “Proud to be a Spudwoman.”

It’s serendipitous, however, that potatoes are part of her focus as assistant professor of plant sciences and plant pathology and MSU Extension plant pathology specialist, Rupp said. While working on her Ph.D. at Kansas State University, she specialized in wheat and used biotechnology to produce disease resistance. Just before she left Kansas, a new gene editing technique called CRISPR/CAS-9 was being considered.

The technique basically uses two molecules to introduce a change into the plant’s DNA. One molecule—an enzyme called CAS-9—acts like a molecular scissors. The other is a piece of RNA that guides the enzyme to a specific spot on a strand of DNA. The enzyme then cuts the DNA to get rid of a problematic gene or add a more beneficial quality. The plant heals itself.

Aseptically maintained mother plants are used to propagate plantlets for distribution to Montana seed potato farmers.

“People have learned to use this in agricultural crops because it is very precise,” Rupp said.

When she came to MSU in 2015 and learned of concerns in the potato industry, she thought the CRISPR/CAS-9 technique might work on potatoes, too, Rupp said. The genes she targeted in wheat, after all, were in the same family of viruses that attack potatoes.

Rupp presented her idea to the Montana Potato Improvement Association, which approved two years of funding totaling $63,000. When that expires, Rupp said she will probably apply for another grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
She is now conducting her CRISPR/CAS-9 research with MSU doctoral student Whitney Harchenko, MSU postdoctoral fellow Myron Bruce and potato breeder Vidyasagar Sathuvalli from Oregon State University at Hermiston. Concentrating first on russet potatoes, the group wants to develop a virus-resistant potato by using the cutting-edge tool that is drawing attention for being faster, more economical and accurate than previous DNA editing techniques.

“Our potato producers are incredibly innovative and excited …that this could happen,” Rupp said.

She added that her ultimate goal is to help producers become more effective and meet their needs.

“The growers are such good people and you work so closely with them,” Rupp said. “You want to have personal success and success for the university, but that’s overshadowed by the growers you are working with. You want them to have success.”

Hawaiian connection

Montanans usually plant potatoes in mid-May and harvest them about four months later.

During the winter, Montana, Idaho, Colorado and California growers used to send samples of their seed potatoes to a military base at Oceanside, California, for post-harvest testing. Other states sent theirs to Homestead, Florida. When the California base eventually turned its farmland into housing, Montana turned to Hawaii.

The MSU Potato Lab now ships tuber samples from every field and every variety grown in Montana to a former sugar plantation on Oahu, Zidack said. In mid-November, while Montanans are wondering if the weather will hold for Thanksgiving and surfers from around the world are gathering for the big waves at Oahu’s famous North Shore, Zidack and potato lab staff are planting tubers nearby on the Twin Bridge Farms. It is co-owned by Milton Agader and Al Medrano who used to work for Waialua Sugar and then the Dole Food Company.

Six weeks later, Zidack and Carpenter return to Hawaii to start inspecting their crops and picking leaves. Zidack and Carpenter then ship the leaves by air cargo to MSU. There, eight to 12 students, many of them international students who have found the MSU Potato Lab to be a good source of employment, work alongside full-time staff to analyze the samples.

“The purpose of the post-harvest testing is to get information on any late season infections and diseases that may have developed in the seed crop that we weren’t able to detect during the summer,” Zidack said. “By growing them out during the winter in Hawaii, we can give the seed-potato farmers and their customers very detailed information on what the disease status will be for that crop the following year. This is especially important if the potatoes will be planted again to be recertified as seed.”

Jessica Rupp, assistant professor of plant pathology and Extension, focuses her research on plant disease problems facing Montana seed potato as well as sugar beet growers.

The harvested potatoes themselves stay in Hawaii while the information returns to Montana. Agader said Montana, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, Wisconsin and western Canada plant a total of 120 acres of potatoes in Hawaii for the post-harvest testing that’s required for seed certification. When the testing is finished, he and Medrano keep the potatoes for themselves to sell commercially in a state where people are more used to eating rice than potatoes.

“People have slowly started to realize that the potatoes we put on the market taste a lot better than what they are eating at the time,” Agader said.

Looking to the future

Potato consumption in the United States is relatively flat, so the U.S. potato industry as a whole is focused on increasing exports, Zidack said.

“Right now, U.S. seed-potato exports are about 1 percent of the total potato exports. The goal of the industry is to expand that market,” Zidack said.

As a member of the U.N. subcommittee on seed-potato standards—officially called the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe—Zidack said she will be able to assist in those efforts. The purpose of the seed-potato group is to standardize certification standards between Europe and other countries within the United Nations. The outcome should enhance trade.

The commission works with and for its 56 member countries, Zidack said. Besides working toward uniform certification standards, the group performs outreach efforts to enhance seed-potato production in developing countries.

Zidack was chosen by the National Potato Council seed committee in December 2015 to serve on the U.N. subcommittee. Her activities there are funded by USA Potatoes, formerly known as the U.S. Potato Board.

“She will do very well,” said Sather, the potato official from North Dakota.

Lake—who was born to a seed-potato grower and then became one himself—said he is excited about Zidack’s appointment, the potential of Rupp’s research and where the industry will go in general.

“We just keep striving to produce the highest quality potatoes we can,” he said. ■