Where does food come from? Have you ever wondered what it takes to get that head of lettuce, that sprig of rosemary, the bell pepper, or that bag of potatoes to the store shelf so you can walk in and just set it in your shopping cart? What about where it actually came from, from the very beginning steps of the entire process? Well, if you’ve ended up here, odds are you’d like to know, and I’m going to tell you how potatoes make it from the breeding facility to the grocery store, restaurant, fast food joint, or even the local farmers market.
Potatoes, unlike most other crops, aren’t grown from a normal seed piece. Flowers and many other plants are grown from what you’d think of as a “normal” seed. Just a small, compact, seed that varies in size depending on the plant. Potatoes, on the other hand, are grown from other potatoes (usually anyways, but that’s another story entirely). Planting potatoes to grow more potatoes actually produces clones of what was planted. This is why more than likely you’ve seen a potato with at least short sprouts on it, or maybe even long sprouts.
Because of this, potatoes replicate any diseases that they could have been infected with while growing in the field during the year. For instance, say you plant a potato in the spring. It starts growing and doing what potatoes do by growing more potatoes, which just so happen to be clones of the starter potato. Then, when everything is going well, an aphid comes along that had just been at a plant infected with a virus detrimental to potatoes. That aphid lands on your potato plant and bites it, transferring that virus to your special plant that you’ve been tending in your garden. That virus enters your plants DNA and because of that transfers to the little potatoes its growing. Depending on the virus, those little potatoes could grow fine next year like nothing is wrong or they could start to grow and then just quit and start to decay.
This is why potatoes are grown the way they are. By growing clones of potatoes year in and year out, potato farmers can supply potato consumers with a consistent supply that doesn’t radically change year to year. But, this cloning leads to problems with viral and bacterial propagation. If the potatoes used for planting aren’t refreshed regularly the disease propagation can lead to non-viable situations where the potatoes might not even grow.
The problem comes with the increase. Say you start with ten plants. One of the ten gets virus A. Each plant grows ten potatoes. You now have 100 potatoes, ten of which have virus A. The next year you plant all of these potatoes but bugs come along and transfer virus A enough to double the infection. Now you have 1,000 potatoes but 200 are infected. After a few years of this your entire supply of potatoes is infected and that’s not even taking into account the potential problems that virus A can cause with quality and yield.
The Solution and The Process
So, a few smart people figured out a system to make sure that doesn’t happen. They found plants they liked that were disease free and figured out how to propagate entire populations off of them. Let’s start with the common Russet Burbank and how it is done in Idaho, not that it’s largely different between states or even nations but some of the names and words used change a little.
If you’ve eaten a potato, you’ve likely eaten a Russet Burbank. This variety is around 100 years old and is the one of the most common varieties in the United States. To begin growing this variety a greenhouse grower will request Russet Burbank starts from a breeding facility, in our example the University of Idaho. The University keeps cloning material in stock for the varieties they work with so they can supply these orders. The University will supply greenhouse growers with plantlets.
The plantlets will be grown in a sealed greenhouse to make sure that they don’t become infected by any disease at this first stage of production. The grower will be sure to apply the things they need to get a good crop of potatoes, things like fertilizer and insecticides (for the sneaky bugs that do make it in) to make sure the size-able investment at this early stage isn’t wasted. These eventually get harvested and this generation of potatoes is known, in Idaho, as Mini-Tubers.
At this point seed potato grower will contact the greenhouse grower, they could even be the same person, and ask what is available if they haven’t worked out a prearranged contract. The greenhouse grower will then send the Mini-Tubers to the seed potato grower to plant in a field. At this stage in development the seed is likely clean with no diseases and is accompanied by a health certificate compiled by the state certification agency stating as much.
The seed potato grower does all the same things as the greenhouse grower, minus the greenhouse, and a few more things to ensure a quality crop. Fertilizer, pesticides, tillage, and irrigation are all things that have to be done to maximize yields. The major difference is that because they are now being grown outside, there is nothing to keep bugs from transferring diseases other than insecticides or some other methods of varying effectiveness and expense. Most seed potato farmers of this early cloning generation are located in isolated areas, away from other potato farmers, and have special deals and arrangements with the local population to supply seed for gardens or other needs to make sure there are few, if any, sources available for infection. Eventually harvest rolls around and this cloning generation (from here on, simply generation), in Idaho, is known as Nuclear.
The reason behind the generational labeling is that the generational clones tend to behave differently depending on the generation. For instance, a Nuclear generation may have high “vigor” and produce a large yield, but the potatoes could be huge and not great for running in a warehouse, where a G3 could have lost some of that “vigor” and produce a very even, uniform crop. There is also the “The younger the generation the lower the disease level” maxim. Generally, the lower the generation the lower the disease will be. This is because of limited chances for reproduction of existing disease and exposure to new disease.
Seed potato growers at this point have a few options. They can sell this Nuclear generation to other seed growers to keep increasing the crop, increase it themselves, sell to a commercial potato grower for final increase, or try and sell it directly to a warehouse for final handling before it goes to a consumer.
For our example let’s say the seed potato grower grows it again. They do the same things again from the planting to harvesting. The generation at harvest here is known as Generation 1, or G1 for short. (This doesn’t make sense to me personally. It seems G1 should maybe be the first field generation instead of Nuclear being the first field generation but whatever; some states do label them that way but not the “Great State of Idaho” for whatever reason)
At this point the grower has the same options as before: sell to another seed grower, sell to a commercial grower, grow their-self, or sell commercially. In our example the seed grower is going to grow it for one more year. This harvested generation is where it gets more simple. This generation is a Generation 2 (G2). At this point you could say, roughly, that if the Mini-Tubers had planted one acre, the G2’s will plant around 1,000 acres, meaning basically a ten-fold increase per field year. By doing these increases the growers can make each succeeding generation more affordable to plant. Plantlets are quite expensive and the cost goes down generation by generation.
Now, let’s say that the seed grower decides this is a great point to sell the seed to a commercial grower. The commercial grower gets all the same documentation showing disease levels etc to make sure that things are where they want them. But a commercial grower has different main goal. Where the seed grower was trying to make sure the potatoes stayed as disease free as possible while maintaining a high quality, the commercial grower is trying to get as much yield as possible with a high corresponding quality. This is why starting with low/clean disease levels is important for commercial growers. They may apply more fertilizer and less insecticide, plant differently, harvest differently, and even store differently than a seed grower.
Now after harvest this commercial grower will have buildings full of potatoes to sell for different purposes. (This is where most farmers market suppliers would get their supply to sell, if they weren’t out actually digging them freshly out of the field mid-growing season) Russet Burbank’s are typically sold either “Fresh” or for “Fries”. For our example we will follow the “Fresh” side. The grower will have a deal arranged with a Fresh Packing Warehouse that will come get the potatoes and wash them, grade them, sort them according to size, and package them accordingly.
These packages are then sold to different outlets; your local restaurant for baked potatoes, freshly mashed potatoes, fresh-cut French fries, or any other method you’ve seen eating out; food distributors that supply schools, restaurant chains, etc; or to your local supermarket for you to buy and take home for any reason you’d like potatoes.
So, the next time you reach for that bag of potatoes, eat that awesome baked potato, or grab that container of French fries, remember that there were hundreds of people and at least three years farming those potatoes to get them to you. From the University where it started, to the greenhouse, to the seed grower, to the commercial grower, to the warehouse, to the shipping personnel, to the the cook, and any one of the unnamed people and steps along the way making sure you get the food you want.