Potatoes are the world's most popular vegetable, produce the most food per acre, and have the best balance - of any plant - of the eight amino acids needed by humans. The U of M breeding program uses wild sources from the Andes of Peru and Chile to improve disease resistance, and tolerance to cold, heat and drought.
Minnesota is at the center of U.S. potato production. The industry has three main segments: fresh market, seed, and processing for chips, fries, and dehydrated foods. Minnesota, North Dakota, Michigan, and Wisconsin are big in all three. The region produces almost a third of all potatoes grown in the country, supports a huge processing industry that adds about $500 million a year to Minnesota's economy, and grows almost half of the seed potatoes used in the U.S. The country's largest potato farming operation is in Minnesota.
U of M plant scientists have been improving potatoes since 1919. Today, researchers from horticulture, entomology, plant pathology, and soil science team up to improve yield, pest resistance, and quality. Culinary, storability, and nutritional traits are also emphasized, such as flavinoids that reduce risk of prostate cancer and optic impairments. Graduate students learn by working on these interdisciplinary projects, and help solve multiple problems simultaneously.
While an ideal food, the potato plant is susceptible to more than its share of diseases - blight, viruses, wilt, scab - and the foliage is a delicacy for insects. For example, besides causing direct damage, aphids quickly spread plant diseases from field to field. A high intensity research effort is now under way to control late blight and two viruses that have reached epidemic proportions, reducing Minnesota's seed potato business by 40 percent in the last five years. The problem is complex, and investigators seek answers that will reduce the need for chemical inputs.
Potatoes are grown in three areas of Minnesota: under irrigation on the sandy soils from Elk River to Park Rapids, on the rich soils of the Red River Valley from Fergus Falls north to Canada, and on peat soils near Albert Lea.
Researchers have aphid traps on the borders of potato fields throughout Minnesota. If and when counts reach the threshold of causing economic damage, producers are alerted and take control measures. Upper left, reseachers harvest field plots at Morris.
U of M potato breeders evaluate:
U of M Potato Varieties
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