A program that teamed up three universities and three agricultural commissions in 1984 has recently experienced its fourth great success with a newly bred potato that seems to be superior in numerous ways to the old gold standard.
The Northwest Potato Variety Development Program – which includes researchers from Washington State University, the University of Idaho, Oregon State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service – has introduced about 45 varieties since its inception, including four since 2000 that have rocketed to stardom – or its closest equivalent in the potato world – as McDonald’s french fries.
WSU potato researchers Rick Knowles and Mark Pavek are principle investigators for the program and have been involved in it since 1999 and 2004, respectively.
The men receive samples from all three states and evaluate them for culinary and storage qualities. If they pass the tests, they are named, grown and released into the world – and sometimes they are noticed by McDonald’s.
“McDonald’s is very stringent. It’s difficult to get new cultivators accepted. When that happens everybody rejoices. The industry sees that and they gear up to gather the seed necessary to supply the industry,” Pavek said. “It’s a major economic impact as the cultivator grows.”
The most recent spuds that have made the grade have been Clearwater Russet and Blazer Russet – bringing the program’s representation at McDonald’s up to four varieties of the seven it uses.
The trick is in carefully examining certain potato traits, including texture, crop yield and storage quality.
What the men refer to as the old standard is the Russet Burbank potato, which stores well and makes an excellent fry, they said, but it could use a few improvements. It is a heavy user of agronomic inputs and susceptible to stress and disease.
Pavek said it also has less “pack out,” or crop yield, which references not only number of potatoes in a crop but the number of potatoes of the right sizes. The old standard had about a 60 percent pack out, while the newer varieties hover around 80 percent to 90 percent or more, Pavek said.
“The size needs to be above 6 ounces for french fries,” he said.
Other beneficial characteristics of the newer potato varieties go far beyond what is necessary for making a good fry.
Potatoes aren’t often noted for their healthful attributes, but that attitude is mistaken, the researchers said.
“You start talking about potassium and everybody thinks bananas, but potatoes are rich in potassium,” Knowles said. “In the North American diet, it figures somewhere around 45 to 50 percent of the daily vitamin C requirement.”
The Clearwater Russet also packs protein – at 33 percent higher than the Burbank.
Other benefits to the new varieties include improved sustainability over other breeds.
“They bring a whole package of resistances to fairly severe diseases and viruses as well as an increased efficiency of management inputs like nitrogen fertilizer and water and so forth,” he said.
The texture, long storage life, high crop yield and lower suggestibility to diseases mean a great deal to the researchers, but the fact that it can be grown with less water and fertilizer put it over the top.
“We’re all about the environment and how to utilize our resources,” Knowles said. “Anytime we can come up with a new, more efficient variety, it really benefits the industry. That’s really what keeps us going. It’s really vibrant, the industry, and it’s really gratifying to be able to do agricultural research and benefit the growers.”
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