Solomon Yilma, senior faculty research assistant, collects potato pollen for plant variety trials in the Department of Crop and Soil Science.
Mashed, smashed, boiled or baked, the potato is a versatile staple of five–star chefs, fry cooks and kitchen mavens across the United States. The best potato salad earns praise at summer picnics, and a creamy potato soup can warm a winter evening. Now researchers in OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences are taking the common spud to new heights by tailoring it to organic production systems and developing colorful varieties.
Their work could offer consumers new choices and help Oregon farmers top the more than $114 million in potato sales they recorded in 2006, already making it the state’s most valuable vegetable crop.
Isabel Vales leads OSU’s potato program in the Department of Crop and Soil Science. The associate professor, who specializes in potato breeding and genetics, and an OSU research team are breeding potatoes that are resistant to pests and disease. They are evaluating thousands of different varieties for both traditional and specialty markets, such as Oregon’s Kettle Chips, a Salem–based chip manufacturer with an interest in potatoes with specific aesthetic characteristics and organic production.
"The aim is to identify selections that have the potential to be grown under organic and conventional systems without the use of pesticides, or with reduced amounts," says Vales.
But can you imagine magenta potato chips or blue fries? These chic root vegetables are a far cry from the brown russets so common on supermarket produce shelves.
Vales’ potatoes range in color from deep ruby to midnight blue, sunny yellow to a marbled purple and white. For all the world they look like they have been colored by crayolas. However, their striking appearance is just one aspect of their unique genetic make–up.
Their size, shape, taste and nutritional value have also been altered using modern vegetable breeding, not genetic modification, with a focus on value–added traits. Many of these potatoes have elevated levels of phytochemicals — plant compounds thought to have protective or disease–preventive properties.
Organics is the fastest–growing segment of the food industry, offering many opportunities and challenges. In order for Northwest growers to have an edge in organic markets they need varieties that can compete with traditional breeds, says Vales. Growers using conventional systems are looking at ways to remain competitive and boost their net returns per acre, says Brian Charlton, a researcher at OSU’s Klamath Basin Research and Extension Center. As demand for organic produce continues to rise, many growers see that by putting at least some of their land into organic and transitional production, they can add value to their crops.
"Added–value varieties that include resistance to diseases, pests and various stresses may have more to offer growers than any other growing input," adds Charlton.
With the work being done at OSU, it may be just a matter of time before cashiers around the nation are asking not only, "Do you want fries with that," but also, "What color do you want them?"