Plant Materials Center in Palmer helps keep Alaska potatoes healthy

A student holds up a large potato at harvest day of the test plot at the Plant Materials Center on Sept. 18, 2019.
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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - You might think that growing potatoes is as simple as buying seeds, putting them in some dirt, and letting the sun and rain do the rest of the work, but potato cultivation has some unexpected steps in Alaska.

For one, potatoes aren’t grown with seeds. While potatoes do produce seeds, those seeds don’t usually produce potatoes with similar characteristics to their parents, making them unreliable for farmers who are looking for consistency. Just like apples, a potato that is sweet might produce offspring that is bitter and soggy if grown from seed.

That’s why potatoes are grown vegetatively. Instead of seeds, potatoes are grown from other potatoes, from which potato plants sprout and produce more potatoes. This method allows growers to get pretty similar replicas of taste and appearance year after year.

But there is one problem with this method.

Because the same potatoes are used year after year, the crops accumulate viruses, bacteria, and fungi that can devastate crops. Luckily modern agricultural science has a solution that was on display on Tuesday at the Plant Materials Center just below the Butte.

Christine Macnicki is the lead of the potato program there and says that the tubers shouldn’t be grown year after year from the same potatoes.

“I have a clean room laboratory where every single one of these potato varieties is kept in tissue culture, so it is just nutrient media and just the green top of a potato plant is kept in that container,” she says.

Essentially, the potatoes are grown in sterile buckets, from where they can be retrieved by local farmers at the start of each season. That way, the potatoes don’t accumulate the viruses, bacteria and fungi they normally would.

But it’s a lot of work to keep track of. Macknicki says that they plant about 330 varieties. While those that the farmers will use are kept in the clean laboratory, the Plant Materials Center also has to test out the varieties each year. That means 330 different patches of potatoes.

"Every single variety in our maintenance program is grown here, I evaluate a variety of parameters such as how quickly it emerges, how quickly it flowers,” says Macknicki. "It’s an opportunity to evaluate all our materials, so if someone were to call me and say I’m looking for an early season variety that’s a great french fry, I can recommend several.” (In this case, her answer would be Allagash Russets, an oblong potato with russetted skin.)

While most are public varieties, some are private, meaning commercial growers developed them for certain characteristics - starch to sugar ratio, durability, morphology, or sometimes just color aesthetics.

A purple potato variety known for its high antioxidant content.

While these varieties aren’t found in the grocery store, there are ways to get some of them. Not only are they pretty, they also have more nutrients.

“In the grocery store you tend to get russets, reds, whites, or yellows. If you go to the farmers markets, you’re gonna get a whole bunch of different flavors, you’re going to get a whole bunch of different colors, which are associated with antioxidants,” said Macknicki.

The center also keeps track of starch versus sugar content, something that can help determine whether the potatoes should be mashed or fried.

Researchers harvest 30 potatoes of each variety grown in the test spots and monitor them for health and size to make sure that the in-vitro tissues that were grown in a lab match what the PMC is selling to farmers. It’s a lot of work, especially after the PMC staff was slashed during the back-and-forth on the budget between the governor and the legislature. While funding was restored, some of the staff that had been cut didn't return after they took different jobs.

But despite the lack of staff, the PMC has plenty of help in the form of classroom field trips from local schools and local volunteers.

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