Research site boosts spuds nationwide

EAST GRAND FORKS, Minn. -- Unless you're part of the U.S. potato industry, you've probably never heard of the U.S. Department of Agriculture research facility in East Grand Forks, Minn.

Potato varieties are stored Oct. 15 at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service’s Potato Research Worksite in East Grand Forks, Minn., for research involving potato processes. (Nick Nelson / Agweek)

EAST GRAND FORKS, Minn. - Unless you’re part of the U.S. potato industry, you’ve probably never heard of the U.S. Department of Agriculture research facility in East Grand Forks, Minn.
But to people who work in the industry, the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s Potato Research Worksite is a unique, invaluable resource that helps develop better chips, fries and dehydrated flakes through improved storage and processing.
Just one example of what the worksite does: “When you open a bag of potato chips and see a brown or discolored chip - we’re working to keep that from happening,” says Darrin Haagenson, the site’s coordinator and food technologist.
In itself, there’s nothing particularly unusual about that. Public and private researchers nationwide are working to improve potatoes. But the East Grand Forks site is unique because it allows the many-faceted potato industry - which includes growers, processors, breeders and other researchers - to “work collaboratively and more efficiently. Everybody learns faster,” says David Parish, a potato industry consultant who’s familiar with the facility.
“It’s an absolutely unique facility, with incredible collaboration there,” says Bill Kemp, the Fargo, N.D.-based ARS Plains Area agricultural administrator.
The worksite is a collaboration of ARS, the University of Minnesota and North Dakota State University extension services and the East Grand Forks-based Northern Plains Potato Growers Association. East Grand Forks is in the Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota, the nation’s leading producer of red potatoes and the only region that produces in volume for the chip, fresh, seed and process markets.
The ARS worksite is a “very unique facility whose research is not replicated anywhere else in the U.S. We are very fortunate to have this state-of-the-art potato research facility located here in our backyard,” says Chuck Gunnerson, association president.
The ARS owns the equipment and part of the worksite building. It leases the rest of the building from the potato growers association, which is headquartered next door.
Fry trials
Agweek visited the facility recently when 40 breeders, processors, growers and other industry officials from across the country came to rank the appearance and quality of potatoes grown in the National Fry Processing Trials. The ranking, and the trials in general, will help the industry come up with better French fries.
Funding sources for the project show the breadth of collaboration at the worksite. Money comes from JR Simplot, ConAgra Foods Lamb-Weston, Cavendish Farms, McCain Foods, Northern Plains Potato Growers Association, the Oregon, Idaho and Washington potato commissions, the Maine Potato and Vegetable Growers Association, the Maine Potato Board, the U.S. Potato Board and USDA’s Speciality Crop Research Initiative.
Potatoes grown in Maine, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Dakota, Idaho and Washington were ranked at the event.
Jeffrey Endelman, a potato breeder at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was among the experts who ranked spuds in East Grand Forks.
The event gives him a better understanding of what processors and growers are looking for, he says.
Clones and collaboration
The fry trials are representative of the worksite’s overall mission: it provides standardized storage and processing evaluations of potato clones, as well as research that improves the storage of existing varieties.
Potato clones are tests, or samples, that go only by numbers. Breeders nationwide come up with hundreds of thousands of clones annually. The East Grand Forks site works with 13 U.S. potato breeders, as well as breeders from two Canadian provinces, to determine the top clones.
Only the best, most successful clones receive names and become varieties. NorValley, Snowden, Dakota Pearl, NorDonna, NorChip and Dark Red Norland are among the varieties that have gone on to commercial success after first being tested as clones at the East Grand Forks site.

All test results at the site, which has four full-time and four part-time employees, must be made public through trade journals or other media. Most of the site’s services are free.

Complex crop
Research helps all crops, but potatoes can enjoy particularly big benefits, industry officials say.
“Potatoes are a highly complex crop. They’re just a complicated crop to grow, with a high cost of production,” says Parish, whose Austin, Texas-based Agricultural Industry Solutions Consulting provides business and technical solutions to the potato industry.
What’s more, “They’re a stored and perishable commodity,” says Parish, a Riverdale, N.D., native and North Dakota State University graduate. “They need to kept in correct environments to store properly. It’s one of the most complicated crops you can possibly work with - and it grows all over the world, in different geographies and weather systems.”
Despite - or perhaps because of - the complexities, working with potatoes “is kind of fun,” he says with a smile.
In any case, the East Grand Forks facility helps the entire U.S. potato industry, he says.
Kemp, the ARS regional administrator, says his agency has invested heavily in the facility and remains committed to it.
“We see it as being there for the long haul,” Kemp says.

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