3/16/2013 7:00 AM
By Teresa McMinn Southeastern Pa. Correspondent
SCHNECKSVILLE, Pa. — It can take years to breed a new variety of potato, but trials are under way to create hardier crops, experts say.
More than 50 commercial potato growers from areas including Schuylkill County, Pa., met recently in North Whitehall Township, Lehigh County, Pa., to discuss the latest industry news and share ways to grow better crops.
“We are breeding potatoes conventionally,” said Bob Leiby, a crop consultant for the Pennsylvania Co-Operative Potato Growers, which works with Penn State University to find new potato varieties. “There are no commercially available GMO potatoes in the U.S.”
Considerations that go into the breeding include the need for plants that can grow in many areas, he said.
One variety, the Dark Red Norland potato, grows in several types of soil, matures early and stores well, Leiby said.
The Lehigh potato is also a strong performer.
“It’s a great potato for the small grower,” he said.
Trials are under way to develop a blue potato that’s high in antioxidants and an orange variety that is packed with vitamins, he said.
Leiby said he hopes the new breeds of potatoes will be more heat tolerant and require fewer pesticides.
He said growers should monitor potato plants that could suffer from heat stress, especially in July and August.
“Summers seem to be getting hotter,” he said.
Another problem is late blight, which many potato and tomato growers faced last season. Leiby said folks should follow the USAblight website to know whether chemicals will be needed to protect potatoes from the disease.
He also discussed fertilizer application.
“You can apply too much nitrogen to a potato crop,” he said, and recommended growers reduce the amount of nitrogen fertilizer if using a cover crop such as tillage radish.
“The nitrogen from the cover crop will remain in the soil,” he said.
Sponsors of the meeting included Pennsylvania Co-Operative Potato Growers, Penn State Extension, Lehigh Valley Potato Growers Association and Bayer CropScience.
Mathew Olinger of Bayer CropScience said the company is working on several trials to develop ways to protect young potato plants from disease.
“We’re going to see higher quality potatoes,” he said.
Dwane Miller, a Penn State Extension educator, talked of research to engineer potatoes that will be more pest resistant.
“More and more of the dollars are being driven into biotech instead of pesticide discovery,” he said.
He also discussed ways to reduce the amount of pesticides applied to potato plants.
“Read the labels,” he said. “The label instructions are there for a reason.”
Water quality can also affect pesticide performance, he said, adding that Penn State offers water testing services.
Water can contain suspended solids or acidic levels that interfere with pesticides.
“Get your water tested,” Miller said.