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Published January 20, 2014, 09:04 AM

Grant benefits Mont. potatoes, leads to new website

A new grant will make it easier and more affordable for Montana gardeners to buy disease-free potatoes that got their start in Montana, says Nina Zidack, director of the Montana State University Potato Lab.

By: Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

BOZEMAN, Mont. — A new grant will make it easier and more affordable for Montana gardeners to buy disease-free potatoes that got their start in Montana, says Nina Zidack, director of the Montana State University Potato Lab.

The two-year $50,000 grant from the Montana Specialty Crops Block Grant Program allowed the MSU Potato Lab to develop a new website and distribution system, which means that Montana garden centers, nurseries, truck farms and other businesses can order Montana certified seed potatoes online at Wholesale orders made by mid-March will be consolidated and then trucked to central locations across the state by mid-April. Businesses can pick up their potatoes at the offices of participating MSU Extension agents.

The new website and distribution system will help prevent disease from entering Montana and should introduce more Montanans to the 24 varieties of Montana certified seed potatoes listed in the 2013 to '14 wholesale directory, Zidack says.

Since the directory was developed in 2011, many nurseries and garden centers in the far reaches of Montana have had trouble obtaining those potatoes because of transportation costs. Better access to Montana seed potatoes might also encourage more Montanans to try purple mashed potatoes and red potato chips, since the potatoes come in colors ranging from white to yellow to red to purple.

Lewis and Clark County Extension Agent Brent Sarchet says he grew Purple Fiesta, All Blue, French Fingerlings, Nordland (Red) and Yukon Gold potatoes in his garden last summer. In addition to that, he planted about 15 varieties in a community garden to show students in his Master Gardener course and other horticulture classes some of the Montana certified seed potatoes that are available.

“Most people had no clue that we grow seed potatoes in the state and have that diversity of different varieties,” Sarchet says.

Wide variety of uses

The 2013 to '14 directory lists the ever-popular Russets, as well as other varieties, including the German Butterball, Mozart, the Purple Viking and the Innovator. The directory shows an oval potato with distinct yellow eyes and an oblong potato with shallow eyes. It displays two-toned potatoes, potatoes that are entirely purple, and potatoes that have purple skin dappled with pink splashes and stripes. It describes some of the potatoes as being great for making potato chips, while others are excellent for potato salad or soup.

“I use them for everything,” Sarchet says. “I really like the Kennebec for hash browns. The rest of the potatoes, I use for mashed potatoes, baked or roasted. I like them all.”

One new variety in the Montana directory is the AmaRosa, a long potato known as a fingerling. It’s red inside and out and ideal for microwaving, frying or baking, according to the directory. Zidack says Montanans will have even more new varieties to look forward to next year, including Huckleberry Gold, Russian Banana, Swedish Peanut and Rose Finn Apple. The Rose Finn Apple is an heirloom fingerling with blush-colored skin and a bright yellow inside. The Swedish Peanut is shaped like a teardrop, and is perfect for baking or roasting. The Russian Banana has tan skin and dark yellow flesh. The Huckleberry Gold produces round to oval tubers with purple skin and yellow flesh.

Sarchet says he also taught his students about the potential dangers of bringing out-of-state seed potatoes into Montana. At least one person, as a result, canceled a huge order of out-of-

state potatoes and bought Montana potatoes instead.

Zidack says some gardeners want to grow the specialty potatoes they have seen in magazines, so they order seed potatoes from catalogs. Montana allows the importing of seed potatoes for gardens, but those potatoes sometimes come from areas that have frequent outbreaks of late blight and higher levels of virus diseases.

Some Montanans also buy seed potatoes at grocery stores or plant potatoes left over from previous seasons, but those aren’t good ideas either, Zidack says. Certified seed potatoes grow better potatoes, and potatoes sold in grocery stores are often treated to restrict the sprouting of tubers. Potatoes sold in grocery stores might come from other states and carry virus diseases and tuber and soil-borne pests.

Potatoes in Mont.

Montana has a $40 million seed potato industry, with 50 family farmers providing almost half the seed potatoes planted by commercial growers in the Columbia basin, Zidack says. Because Montana provides seek stock for such a large portion of the nation’s potato crop, the state has the country’s strictest regulations governing seed potato production. To help protect the industry, Zidack encourages home gardeners to plant seed potatoes that have been certified through the MSU Potato Lab, where all certified seed potatoes in Montana originate.

“Increased planting of Montana-certified seed in gardens will reduce the risk of introducing pathogens or other pests, which would cause serious disease outbreaks resulting in monetary losses to growers,” Zidack says.

The MSU Potato Lab, officially called the MSU Seed Potato Certification Program, tests for three types of viruses that reduce yield of potatoes and cause mosaic patterns, which is one symptom of diseased potatoes, Zidack says. During the summer, inspectors also walk through every seed potato field in Montana to examine the plants. During the winter, they conduct post-harvest testing by shipping tuber samples from every field and every variety grown in Montana to a former sugar plantation in Hawaii. The tubers are planted in plots on Oahu and inspected after 40 days.

Testing in Hawaii during the off-season allows Montana growers to have the results before their growing season begins in the spring, Zidack says.