Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Potato Barn

Picture from HERE


Michigan State University has an active potato breeding program.  I have been invited to visit it tomorrow.  This will likely be one of the high points of my spring.

I learn something new every time I visit.  For example, last time I went I learned about the advantages of sterilizing the knife you use to cut seed (with 10:1 water:bleach) between each potato you cut.  This is not as big of a deal if you always buy new seed.  It is a big deal if you think you might want to save some seed potatoes for following years.

Potatoes in general


Consumption of processed potatoes has gone up while consumption of fresh potatoes has gone down.  Consequently much of the attention in potato breeding has focused on processing potatoes.

Michigan State's  program is balanced.  My guess is that 70% of the focus is processing potatoes and 30% is table potatoes.  Part of the value of that approach is that you might be breeding for processing...and accidentally produce the best table potato in history.  It is likely that the breeder would cull that selection if he/she did not have a venue for evaluating table potatoes.  And that would be a tragic loss in a world where there are hungry people.

If you are interested in growing much of your own food and are north of the Ky-Tn line, then potatoes are one of your "heavy lifters".  A bonus in eating tablestock potatoes is that they are very efficient in terms of embedded energy.

Culinary end-uses


Potatoes are cooked in many different ways.

Baked potatoes are typically dry, high specific-gravity potatoes.  The American consumer typically looks for long, russet potatoes because the arch-type potato for this application is the Burbank Russet.  Ironically, many of the russet potatoes on the market are not high solid potatoes (Norkota, Goldrush).  Dry, "mealy", high specific-gravity potatoes are also considered highly desirable by consumers in the United Kingdom.

Processed potatoes are typically dry, high specific-gravity potatoes that have low soluble sugars.  The problem with soluble sugars is that they cause browning under the rigors of industrial processing.  They are likely to be round, white, smooth skinned potatoes because the processing occasionally misses some of the skin.  Consumers do not notice smooth white skin while russet or pigmented skin is considered coarse and undesirable by most consumer.  Another characteristic that is common in processing potatoes is very long storage life.

Picture from HERE.  Click picture to enbiggen.


Boiled potatoes and "cold" (i.e. potato salad) potatoes are typically moist, lower specific-gravity potatoes.  They tend to hold shape and not "explode" when boiled.  I once gave a bag of "dry" potatoes to a neighbor for evaluation.  Their feedback was that they took too much gravy to make them edible.  I guess it did not occur to them that they could add more liquid when mashing them.

Most "boiling" potatoes are red skinned, yellow fleshed or round white skinned.  It is not that these traits are genetically linked but that the consumer (and recipes) link these visual cues to certain culinary characteristics.

"Boiling" potatoes are often popular with home gardeners because they produce huge bulk in terms of potatoes.  Total yields of one pound per square foot (4.8 kg/m^2) are possible.  One downside of low gravity potatoes is that you end up storing a large amount of water, which is a waste of space.  The other downside is that many of these potatoes develop deep eyes when grown to full maturity.  Deep eyes are a pain when you (the hubby) are the designated potato peeler.

One of the challenges for the breeder is to not push the envelop too hard.  There is very little profit in betting against the market.  Breeders are attempting to develop higher yielding potatoes, potatoes that have fewer "culls", potato varieties that have horizontal resistance to common diseases. Not only that, but those selections must conform to the visual cues that potato buyers are looking for.

Jacqueline Lee


Data Sheet


I grew Jaqueline Lee for several years.  It is a humdinger of a potato.  My favorite way to eat them is to split them in half, microwave them cut side down and then eat them cut side down.  The juices migrate to the cut surface and then evaporate when cooking.  Those concentrated juices are what touches your tongue when you eat them that way.  To me, that is the acid test of potato flavor.

J.L. is an extremely vigorous plant and can hold its own in my less-than-perfectly weeded garden.  It is a prolific setter of seeds which could be fun for some casual breeding experiements.

J.L. is not quite perfect.  It yields less than the low gravity potatoes like Red Pontiac....but that is because there is less water and more solids in the potato.  It is also a little bit smaller than what some buyers are looking for.  I don't have a problem with that because the skin is very thin and smooth.  It cleans easily and I do not notice it when eating them microwaved.  Size matters most when considering the labor required to remove the skin.  It becomes irrelevant if you choose not to peel your potatoes. YMMV.

My Pilgrimage


Tomorrow I go to the potato barn.  I have been given the heads-up that I will be asked to trial something a little bit different than Jacqueline Lee on my Marlette Loam, 5% grade test plot.  I am not quite as excited as a kid on Christmas Eve....but it is close.

How can you not love going to a place that believes in potato valentines?  Picture from HERE

Potatoes, Part II

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