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Potato researchers get $200,000 to find ways to help grow disease-resistant crops in Maine

A University of Maine potato project attempting to make new varieties recently received a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The project aims to make potato varieties that can withstand disease - along with other desirable traits. `This is a really good way to extend science into the real world … it can have a major impact on an important Maine industry. We have a lot of good-looking, new varieties that we hope to release in the next few years,` said UMaine agronomy professor Gregory Porter, coordinator for the Potato Breeding and Variety Development Program.

Funds the Maine Potato Board provided, along with $102,000 of the grant, will be used to pay for technical staff and supplies. The Integrated Potato Breeding Variety Development Project is a collaborative effort that includes research facilities in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia and North Carolina. The remaining $98,000 will fund research in these states.

The project`s focus is on yield, quality and disease resistance. Researchers select and cross plants using traditional plant-breeding techniques at Aroostook Research Farm in Presque Isle. `The industry has about half a billion dollars worth in the Maine economy and about 6,000 jobs,` said Maine Potato Board Director of Development Tim Hobbs, referring to 2003 statistics.

Potatoes are the top agricultural product in Maine. There are nearly 200 potato growers in the state. Between 1958 and 1988, Aroostook County alone produced more potatoes than any state in the nation, according to the Maine Potato Board.
The program, led by Porter, screens approximately 50,000 potatoes each year for desirable characteristics. There are several stages to screening potatoes in the field and lab.

First, they conduct a visual screen, singling out the plants that display a desirable appearance. Usually about 1,000 plants make it through this screening. Next, they evaluate how well plants do in the climate. For example, they test for susceptibility to certain diseases and pests. Over a period of years, they end up with just a few plant varieties. They then build up seed supplies and send them out for commercial tests to see how the plants do at farms. `There`s a fairly large market for fresh consumed potatoes  up to 35 percent goes into fresh market, and we want to be able to have new varieties that are good quality and have good nutritional value and that will grow well for the grower,` Porter said.

Evaluations on flavor, texture and color are conducted in collaboration with the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. Cooking and tasting takes place at the taste-testing facility in Hitchner Hall. In 2007, UMaine and Cornell University released a new yellow potato called Lehigh, similar to Yukon Gold. In collaboration with USDA and several other universities, UMaine released a purple-skin and yellow-flesh variety called Peter Wilcox. `It`s just a very delicious potato after it`s boiled,` Porter said. Late Blight is a fungus that caused the Irish potato famine. Today, many growers spray crops weekly to prevent this fungus from destroying crops.

`Scab is a soil born disease when it`s present it can cause these quirky, ugly lesions on potatoes and people wont buy them because of the appearance,` Porter said. Pink Rot is a soil fungus that causes tubers to rot and can result in complete crop failure. It`s a problem in areas like the East Coast where there is a lot of erratic rainfall. UMaine aims to create resistant varieties that would erase these risks and reduce the use of fungicide.

Approximately 65 percent of Maine`s potato industry goes into producing products like chips and french fries. To create ideal chip varieties, they look for high yield, roundness, freedom from defect - such as bruising - high starch content and low sugar content. High sugar content creates a dark chip color, while low levels result in a golden one. For french fries, they want long tubers. Some potatoes turn gray when fried, so they select potatoes that retain whiteness. They also select for good texture. `They should be a little bit moist and a little bit mealy,` Porter said.

The Maine Potato Board was created in 1986 by an act of the Maine Legislature to establish a framework for leadership in the industry. The board has funded UMaine potato research in the past. `The main reason we fund variety research is to try to meet the need of the consumer better,` Hobbs said. It is beneficial for the university to conduct this because it gets students involved in the industry, Hobbs said. At UMaine, faculty from several departments conduct the majority of the research. A few graduate students are hired for fieldwork, and a number of food science and human nutrition students are also involved.

A new project component is the development of molecular-based tools to help select varieties with improved disease resistance. Plant molecular genetics assistant professor Benildo de los Reyes leads the research, which is in its early stages.The grant will fund the project until August 2009.

Source: mainecampus.com

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