9/15/2012 7:00 AM
By Teresa McMinn Southeastern Pa. Correspondent
GERMANSVILLE, Pa. — Whether they end up chipped, flaked or milled for flour, potatoes make up a diverse and demanding industry and present farmers with many challenges to raise a healthy, bountiful crop.
But research in the field is constantly growing, which means stronger varieties of potatoes are on the way.
Recently, crop experts shared the latest potato news — including a variety of tests and trials under way — with a group of farmers in Germansville.
“There will be more and more testing for nutrition,” Mike Peck, who works in the Penn State University Department of Plant Pathology, said, using the purple majestic potato as an example. “It’s high in antioxidants like blueberries.”
The event, put on by Penn State Extension, Pennsylvania Co-Operative Potato Growers Inc. and the Lehigh Valley Potato Growers Association, was initially set as a twilight potato field meeting.
That plan changed, however, when a strong thunderstorm forced the group to take cover in potato farmer Forest Wesner’s barn, where folks sat on rows of baled hay while industry experts, including Beth Gugino, PSU assistant professor of vegetable crop pathology, discussed potato problems and potential solutions.
Speakers at the meeting also talked of potato research being conducted in Maine.
Robert Leiby, a crop consultant for the Pennsylvania Co-Operative Potato Growers who was at the Sept. 4 talk in Germansville, had attended a USDA meeting in northern Maine with more than a dozen other potato experts and breeders.
The research includes testing new potato varieties for better resistance to disease and insects, he said.
Some new varieties could replace older types of potatoes, such as the Katahdin, often grown in areas including Pennsylvania, he said.
“We are growing varieties that have been out for more than 50 years,” he said. “We have some new varieties that we think are better ... more disease resistant, more efficient users of water.
“We’re screening (thousands of potatoes) and deciding which to keep and which to throw out,” Leiby said. “What we’re doing up here is looking at new varieties that have not been released yet ... farmers can’t buy them.”
One new variety, now referred to as AF3001-6, is “an excellent yielder,” he said, describing a long, white potato with smooth skin that’s being tested along the East Coast.
Results of the testing will benefit potato farmers who face many challenges, Leiby said.
They tend to raise their crop for a specific market such as grocery stores or processing plants, he said. That means the grower must find the most suitable, hearty product to meet industry demands.
“The chip market likes very light-colored (potatoes) for a nice, bright-colored chip,” Leiby said.
Farmers also face a threat from late blight, a destructive fungal disease blamed for the potato famine in the 1800s.
“This year again, we’re seeing some late blight,” Leiby said, which he attributed to wet and cool weather.
A late blight infection on a potato or tomato plant in a small, residential garden can become airborne and spread through large potato farm fields.
“They are spores and they’ll blow around,” he said.
Crop protection fungicides can be used to stop a late blight infection, However, if not caught in time, the disease can destroy an entire potato crop, he said.
A bag containing potato leaves with symptoms of late blight that were collected eight days earlier after the potato field was sprayed with mefenoxam, or Ridomil was passed around among the growers.
“Since this particular genotype of Phytophthora infestans is sensitive to mefenoxam, the disease had not progressed and caused the leaves to melt down in the bag,” Gugino said later by email.
“In the recent past, the commonly found strains/genotypes of P. infestans have been resistant to mefenoxam,” she said.
To raise a good crop, Leiby said a potato farmer must manage nutrients, select a plant variety suitable for the region, apply water and harvest at the right times, and monitor for pests and disease.
“Get good management recommendations,” he said.
To learn more, contact Leiby at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.usablight.org.