In Praise of the Lowly Spud!
Getting inside a potato, at least metaphorically, requires analysis, a bit like a botanical chess game. Weather, bugs, regulations, soil, genetics — they all play a role. Breeding the next earthy star, the next “Yukon Gold”, requires patience and creativity on the part of the breeder. And it has to taste terrific!
This is why Vanessa Currie, the energetic potato-point-person at the University of Guelph, connects with her spud-network across the continent to assemble as many different varieties as she can (in August 2013 there were 138) then plants and nurtures them before luring industry to the University of Guelph Research Station near Elora, Ontario — and to her table. She often serves this fabulous homemade Island Potato Salad to her guests.
Potato Research Field Day is an opportunity for growers and processors to gather in a field filled with potato plants and piles of newly dug tubers to learn, slice open and talk about what’s next on the horizon for new, most un-named varieties while using older ones as what she calls ‘markers’. Shepody is a Canadian French fry standard developed in New Brunswick; Atlantic is an old potato chip standard and then there’s the awesome table potato, Yukon Gold. These are the varieties against which others are judged.
With project lead Dr. Al Sullivan, Currie’s work as a “variety prospector” continues to advance The University of Guelph’s already established potato breeding legacy. It was at that university that the legendary Yukon Gold was created by the late Dr. Gary Johnston in 1966. This spud is so famous for its quality that its name is emblazoned on menus around the world. When he passed away it fell to Currie and several of her colleagues to maintain and honour his work. Even though Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) has deleted them from their array of active cultivars, the U of G team still grows them with great care and respect for the work of their once-colleague and teacher.
Originally Johnston’s Ruby Gold (pictured at left) had some success in the Prairies but because of the expense of maintaining virus-free seed stock, it will never likely be grown widely again. The “G” denotes that G654-2 and G8136-8 are two other Johnston-inspired Guelph cultivars. The first two numbers are the year they were selected, the next number is the number of crosses that Dr. Johnston made and the final number indicates which of those crosses this potato is. In the first case, it’s the second selection of 4 crosses made in 1965, while the next one is the selection of 36 crosses he made in 1981. This sort of numbering system appears in a variety of styles all across crop breeding .
The gene bank for potatoes is at the AAFC station in Fredericton, New Brunswick. So when, in the field, there’s a numbered variety beginning with “F”, the work was done at that location. F06053 (below) is a long, skinny, almost beet-red cultivar that’s being investigated for its antioxidant qualities. Although some of that data is pending, it’s being offered for experimental growing across Canada via the Accelerated Release programme. F08099 is said to have some potential for anti-oxidant status as well but since this is the first year in the U of G fields, as Currie says, “the jury’s still out” but I love its heritage – it’s the progeny of Huckleberry and Adirondack Blue.
Like Fredericton, New Brunswick, Carberry in Manitoba and Vauxhall in Alberta are honoured with varieties beginning with “CV”. With growing conditions that vary across the nation, this sort of cross-Canada development is very important. Testing them in central Ontario provides even more information for potential growers. CV96044-3 is the most interesting of the ones in the Elora field since it is being developed to have a low glycemic index and, as such, will be great for those who carbs are a problem. This is one of the attractive potatoes we’ll likely see more of in the future.
Finally, Dakota Pearl is an example of how the collaboration between ag and industry help farmers respond to industry. This ‘field chipper’ is a dual purpose spud. You can boil or roast it but companies like Frito Lay most often use it to make chips harvesting them in early July and August when other potatoes aren’t quite ready.