From plantlet to tuber: the story behind the staple

Modern potatoes start as tiny plantlets that take years of nurturing before they become a full-grown tuber for the seed market.

It can be a risky business. New varieties may offer disease tolerance or turn into tastier french fries but have little value if the market rejects them.

“At the end, it is the consumer who controls what is in the store,” said Alberta seed potato grower Ludwig Reicheneder.

“What we have been facing in the past with establishing new varieties is that the store tells you, ‘you can grow whatever you want,’ but they won’t put it on the shelf.”

That means going back to the beginning and possibly losing an entire breeding program.

Reicheneder is part of a family owned business, Rockyview Nuclear Tuber Ltd. and Rockyview Elite Tubers, based 30 kilometres east of Calgary. His father, Gabriele Reicheneder, had 20 years experience growing potatoes in Germany before coming to Canada in 2001 to start this farm.

He used a tour to his farm earlier this year to explain the years of cautious development that are required to bring a better potato to market.

It is a fully integrated operation that works with breeders to create new varieties from the tissue culture stage to certified seed potatoes. It offers about 30 varieties.

Commercial seed potatoes start as tiny plantlets, or tissue culture grown in a special medium. This form of micro propagation started about 50 years ago as a way to multiply disease free plants that would eventually become seed potatoes.

“It takes such a long time to get from the plantlet all the way to the tuber,” Reicheneder said. “We have to start that variety years ahead.”

The company recently expanded its nuclear seed production to meet demand. Five additional greenhouses with the capacity to generate 1.2 million first generation mini tubers were built.

It also has facilities on site to grade, store and supply seed to growers. A large storage facility built in 2004 stores up to 9,000 tonnes of seed.

The company has access to 5,000 acres to grow out the seed, and the farms are separated to prevent spread of disease.

Crop rotation requirements result in the company growing about 400 acres of seed potatoes a year on irrigated land.

The five year rotation grows barley, peas, canola and wheat before a new crop of potatoes goes into a field.

The company’s market is split almost evenly among Europe, Canada, the United States and Mexico.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency visits frequently to check the greenhouses and every plant in the field. No public access to the fields is allowed as part of a biosecurity program.

“It is a very rigorous record keeping and controlled environment that they like to see,” Reicheneder said.

The scoop on spuds:

  • Alberta producers grew seed potatoes on 10,674 acres last year with Russett Burbank being the most popular on 4,250 acres.
  • About 100 varieties are grown in the province.
  • Alberta producers grow an average of 52,500 acres of potatoes, which includes seed, table market and processing types.
  • The industry, crop and value- added, is worth approximately $1 billion a year. All the money is spent in Alberta.

Source: Potato Growers of Alberta

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