Researchers and growers look for the perfect spud for Ohio growers

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WOOSTER, Ohio – For Matthew Kleinhenz, the perfect Ohio spud looks like a smaller, rounder version of Mr. Potato Head – but with a much higher value than its mustachioed cousin.

A researcher with the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center and vegetable specialist with Ohio State University Extension, Kleinhenz is working on the development of potato varieties that grow well under Ohio conditions and offer higher earnings for local farmers.

“When you say potato, most people think of the white or russet types, chips or fries,” Kleinhenz said.

“But potatoes come in all sizes, shapes and textures. What we are looking for is a small, round and uniform-size red potato specifically bred for Ohio, which will provide different options to both growers and consumers.”

Farm value. With an annual farm value of $2.7 billion and per capita use of 148 pounds in 2000, potatoes rank first in value and consumption among all vegetables produced and consumed in the country, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

Russets constitute 68 percent of the country’s potato consumption, while whites come in second with 26 percent and reds take the remaining 6 percent.

Kleinhenz’ ideal spud may be small (about the size of a golf ball), but its market potential is as big as a couch potato.

The researcher estimates that this crop can generate four or five times more dividends than regular white or large baker potatoes.

“Growers who are already working with this type of potato have no problem placing it in the market,” Kleinhenz pointed out.

“But because of limited seed availability, it costs a lot to produce this commodity. Also, there are many producers in Ohio who want to grow small, red-skin potatoes, but they just don’t have the genetics to do it efficiently.”

Demand. Because of market demand, breeding efforts in the U.S. favor varieties that yield large potatoes. And unlike major potato-producing states such as Idaho, Washington and Oregon, Ohio does not employ a potato breeder.

In 2000, potato production in Ohio totaled 1.13 million hundredweight, compared to 514 million hundredweight nationwide.

“Night temperatures during the growing season in Ohio are two high, which affects the development of color in red potatoes,” said David Kelly, manager of the Ohio Potato Growers Association.

“What we need is a potato with a nice dark color, few and shallow eyes, and a smooth surface. We don’t have that now.”

State conditions. Despite the lack of a state breeder, OARDC, in collaboration with the Ohio Potato Growers Association and breeders from different regions of the U.S. and Canada, has been evaluating the performance of experimental lines under Ohio’s soil and climatic conditions.

In 2000, 151 genotypes (20 named varieties, 131 numbered lines) of tablestock and processing potatoes were evaluated in Wooster. A similar experiment took place last year, this time with 133 genotypes.

“A this moment we are in the early stages of project, evaluating material for potential varieties that would be bred here,” Kleinhenz said.

“We are concentrating on red-skin potatoes, white or yellow flesh, because they are the number one choice of people who eat small potatoes and the demand for good, uniform-size red potatoes is growing.”

The current search for high-value, Ohio-bred tiny red spuds is part of an ongoing effort to improve the quality of locally grown potatoes.

Regional projects. During the past 25 years, Ohio has participated in two regional projects designed to increase the availability of potato varieties adapted to production conditions in the Midwest and the East Coast.

Both endeavors seek the enhancement of potato germplasm through the introgression of valuable traits from wild species of potato, as well as the development of varieties adapted to the unique growing conditions common to the north-central and northeastern regions of the country.

Potato breeders, geneticists and production scientists with USDA and eight universities participate in the projects.

Kleinhenz believes that the introduction of new, high-value crops into Ohio’s production landscape is vital for the future of farming in the state.

“What is Ohio going to be growing five, 10 years from now?” he asked.

“Diversity will be very valuable for everyone here, and the university wants to help as much as possible in this process.”

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