Columbia Basin potato farmers celebrate seed trials

In the heart of Columbia Basin potato country, Washington farmers are growing potato seeds in research fields to help find the healthiest and heartiest spuds.

Today, the Washington State Potato Commission, Washington State University and farmers are celebrating 50 years of partnership in those potato seed trials.

Researchers and farmers will tromp through the fields at WSU's Othello research station today and talk about this year's results as part of their annual potato field day.

And the research will continue thanks to a donation of new irrigation equipment by the commission, which also provides funding for the potato trials. The money comes from assessments paid by potato growers.

The three new center pivots, worth $150,000, will replace an archaic irrigation system, said Raina Spence, the commission's director of industry outreach. This year is the first time that overhead irrigation will be used for the seed trials, according to the commission.

The research allows both the potato farmers and the seed producers to see how their potatoes perform under Eastern Washington conditions, Spence said.

Potato seeds -- which actually are a chunk of potato -- may come from Canada, Washington, Oregon or Montana, she said.

The seed trials focus on all types of potatoes, including those for processing, chips or the fresh market, Spence said.

Most of Washington's potatoes are processed into products such as french fries. But some are made into chips, and others are sold fresh to consumers to become anything from a baked potato to mashed potatoes for the top of a shepherd's pie.

Washington, the first state to start harvesting potatoes, has the second-largest volume in the nation, growing about 21 percent of the U.S. output.

Washington's potato crop was valued at $771 million in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That made it the state's fourth-highest-valued commodity after apples, milk and wheat.

Mark Pavek, WSU extension horticulturist, said in a statement that the potato trials are an example of the success that can happen when industry and a university work together.

"Potato seeds are a living organism and as such are susceptible to a wide range of disease and viruses," he said. "These trials help to provide the growers with a legitimate voice about the quality of their seed."

Othello's research station has hundreds of trial plots of potato seed samples, according to the commission.

Any grower can enter seed into the trial to see how it performs, Spence said.

Each year during a field day, growers get the chance to walk the fields and see how their crop may perform, Spence said.

Scientists and WSU extension professionals will rate the seed lot twice before field day, Spence said. The visual check covers pests, pathogens and overall physiological performance.

That data is included in a report published by WSU and available to growers, she said.