Part 1 in a 3 part series of reflections from Grower Participants with the Organic Potato Variety Trials
by Erin Schneider, Hilltop Community Farm
& Ruth Genger, UW Madison Department of Plant Pathology Organic Potato Project
A potato is a potato is a potato, right? Famines result from such homogeneity in thinking – look no further than Ireland in the 1840’s & 1850’s. So where exactly do organic potatoes fit for our farms and markets in the Midwest? I had the opportunity to explore these and other questions during interviews with 26 of the 28 growers who participated in the Organic Potato Variety Trial research in 2015, spanning Midwest climates in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Ohio, and North & South Dakota. The following are a summary of reflections I’ve gleaned from the interviews.
Why Participate in Variety Trials?
For the past six years, UW-Madison researchers have collaborated with organic growers to select potato varieties that excel under organic management. Varieties from multiple market classes experience a wide range of field conditions and management models at different farm scales. Participants are willing to take the time and space to participate in this project for a variety of reasons. Some are driven by the need to have a robust organic seed system, and being able to experiment with more than just the 6 – 8 varieties that show up in most seed catalogs is appealing. Having to rely on outside sources/inputs touches a nerve in the self-sufficient, resilient, Upper Midwesterner!
Several participating farmers are going beyond the diversity available in variety trials, and trialing potatoes grown from true seed as part of on-farm potato breeding trials. Even a few growers not formally researching true potato seed did their own crosses, driven by the need to tweak and experiment.
Which Comes First: the Potatoes or the Markets?
I asked farmers to comment on where potatoes fit with their farm systems and markets. For the farm system, farmers expressed an interest in learning more about soil management techniques that support building soil fertility and nutrition. Weed management strategies, whether mulching, mechanical hilling and (for some) tine weeding, hand pulling, or some combination, are perennial challenges for potato fields of all shapes and sizes. Seed piece handling is another topic of interest, both on how to best store seed pieces as well as techniques for greensprouting, in the interest of hastening emergence. Most people saved seed tubers from last year and grew these out in the 2015 season. In all cases they noted that potatoes saved from previous seasons had greater surface defects and disease pressure.
Another challenge is to identify organic potato varieties that work well for different markets. As farmers, researchers, and potato purveyors of all shapes and sizes, we have our work cut out for us in marketing potato terroir and diversity in a region known for its pragmatism and love of meat and carbs. A good fit for Russet Burbank, but what about Purple Peruvian or Barbara?
Needs and interests around variety selection were driven by customer feedback, but also by the grower’s desire to find potatoes that are nutrient dense, store well, and taste great. CSA and restaurants seem to be the most forgiving and receptive clientele for most farms introducing new varieties.
You can glean more re: ways that Chefs, Researchers and Farmers have teamed up for a flavorful collaboration with produce from a recent article in Madison.com. Farmers’ market customers take a little more education in terms of understanding the value of organic, specialty potatoes and willingness to pay more for these varieties compared with other potatoes at the market. Growers I spoke with who market wholesale painted a picture of a cut-throat market in which size and equipment plays a big role in profitability, and standard varieties and types are more in demand.
That said, potatoes seem to work well for season extension and storage shares. Potatoes also seem to have a good fit in terms of community engagement and education about vegetable research. Some growers are using variety trials as an education tool. It’s a crop most people are familiar with, it’s easy to handle, and can pack a lot of bulk into the menu. Growers are using potato trials for education in the context of community gardens, schools, cities, amongst growers and with farm employees/interns. We’ll have more details of this, and highlight a few of the farms, in future posts.
Another market trend that emerged from the interviews was interest in finding nutrient dense varieties. In this regard, purple varieties had a strong grower appeal, though lackluster yields across the board made for disappointing expectations. People were willing to make an exception for Papa Cacho as the shape is always a conversation piece for growers and eaters alike. With fingerlings there isn’t much room for middle ground. Farmers either are really into them or not.
As the variety trial ratings and data are analyzed there’s an interest in understanding whether certain varieties respond well to certain types of management strategies or production scale.
In most cases, a variety that did well for one farmer, didn’t work for another. As a participant myself, I am convinced that Red La Soda is the cosmopolitan potato as it seemed to perform in just any growing condition imaginable and may even be the potato that would survive a nuclear fall-out. As we sift through the ratings data, other standout varieties may emerge and we will be sure to share in future blog postings.
Growers’ Experience(s) with Participation in Variety Trials
In terms of evaluation process, I observed that people expressed the need for another set of eyes in the field to assess plant vigor, disease and insect pressure. This was especially the case for first-time participants. They appreciate the detailed instructions, ideas for plant spacing and mapping, general ease of setting up trials, and filling out data sheets. Photographs also helped, though there is nothing that quite compares to in-person support, for example, when it comes to rating leafhopper damage.
Growers shared ideas for how to support training such as having field visits for new grower participants and including a resource list of for identifying diseases such as early and late blight.
Participants are encouraged to send in samples to the UW Plant Pathology Diagnostic Clinic, if questions arise and a field visit isn’t feasible.
Future training possibilities also included: hosting a field day in Wisconsin for grower participants; share video of field days so those who can’t attend can still access the information; identify a few experienced neighbor growers who would be willing to ‘mentor/train the trainer’.
After listening and learning of the season’s highlights I have a new appreciation for participatory research, and the time and processes involved in collaborating across county and state lines. What works in one region might flop in another and the separation might only be by a few hundred miles.The same is true with weather patterns. Some areas experienced continued rain for months at a time, others had to contend with 5 – 7 inch downpours in June, followed by dry spells through August, still others had the best season yet in terms of growing conditions.
As we sift through findings, we hope to tease out some of the characteristics that impact potato performance. We’d also love to hear from you. Are there any follow-up points you’d like to expand on in terms of what worked, what didn’t for your farm and market systems? Do you have photos you’d like to share? Are there other topics you’d like to delve into? We welcome your feedback and comments and greatly appreciate your participation!
On the horizon:
We’ll follow-up with a photo journey through the field ratings forms and focus on management. Woven into these gleanings, we’ll share performance/variety ratings based on your field data shared.This article was posted in Blog Posts and tagged organic potato, organic potatoes, potato variety trials.