The perfect potato: More than anything, it takes patience to find the next great potato

Jeff Miller is a patient man. He will spend 10 or 12 years sorting through millions of experimental potatoes, weeding out more than 99 percent of them in hopes of finding that next great commercial variety.

Jeff Miller is a patient man. He will spend 10 or 12 years sorting through millions of experimental potatoes, weeding out more than 99 percent of them in hopes of finding that next great commercial variety.

He's the guy in charge of the breeding and genetics program at the USDA Agricultural Research Service's Red River Valley Potato Research Worksite in East Grand Forks, Minn. He's not a USDA employee, though. He shares the laboratories and test plots with the ARS, but works for the University of Minnesota's potato genetics program. He is degreed in biology and chemistry.

"I'm a research scientist," he says. "I do all of the planting, all the harvesting. I do the sampling and I do the testing, with the exception of some of our more advanced lines, which we'll give to" USDA researchers.

He's been in potato research since graduating from NDSU.

"I went to work for NDSU right out of college. I came here as a part-time student working as a research chemist, and then when I got my degree, I came back and worked for 18 years at NDSU as a potato biochemist, under a research service agreement."


In the early 1990s, the federal government tried to close the East Grand Forks facility. All of the federal staff on board there were transferred to the newly opened but understaffed ARS facility in Fargo, N.D.

"So I went down there, too. Being an NDSU employee, they just transferred me with my former boss," he says.

In 2002, he returned to East Grand Forks as an employee of the University of Minnesota, still searching for those high-performance potatoes.

Birth of a variety

His new boss, Christian Thill at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul, is a professor in the horticulture department. He manages the creation of the experimental varieties that Miller puts them through all manner of tests, looking for the standouts that will meet the needs of the chip, french fry and instant potato processors.

It all starts in the research labs on the St. Paul campus. The researchers there prepare a group of new experimental clones from standard varieties like Norchip or russet Burbanks, cross-pollinated with one of their experimental lines.

"They will raise them, and they nip buds off them while they're growing so they don't set tubers," Miller says, explaining that the tuber production draws most of the valuable growing energy, while the researchers want them to flower and produce pollen.

From these plants, they will remove seed balls and raise them until they are plantlets old enough to make the trip to Miller in East Grand Forks. Miller starts by getting them in the ground.


"These will sprout and put roots down, and the plant will shoot up and we'll keep snipping off parts of it so the plant just grows and grows and grows," he says. "It won't set tubers."

In the fall, he and his coworkers will spin those potatoes out of the ground and then take a walk down every row.

"We'll look at each one of them, and say, 'OK, we want this one,'" he says. "We may skip the next 10 and want the 20th one."

Miller is looking for the best samples, the ones that will be propagated and replanted the following spring. This is done every year, and he works by process of elimination. But he starts each with not a dozen or even 100 plants to cull out.

"We've got roughly 80,000 or 100,000 plants in the field that we'll have a look at," he says.

If he spots a promising potato, he'll pick it up, cut it open and look at its flesh. If the flesh looks good, he'll hang on to it.

"We'll probably select about 800 or 900 out of that 100,000 to bring forward for the next year. We do that every year, and each year, we thin them down. Some won't do as well and we'll drop them so that at the end of 10 or 12 years, we'll be down to maybe two or three clones out of that original 900 that have passed everything that we can think of. That's when it gets to the point of release."

Of the ones they've gotten out of the field, they will quarter them and replant them the next year as either an eight-hill unit or a 12-hill unit.


"That will be considered our G-1 (first generation) field," he says. "So we'll spin those out again in the fall and we'll look at those populations. The year before, we maybe only got a look at two or three potatoes, now we'll get a look at what comes out of 12 plants."

Miller is looking for any number of specific traits, depending upon what the variety was bred for.

"You have to know what industry is looking for," he says. "They don't want anything with knobs on it, or that's ill-formed or misshapen."

They'll throw out the bad, keeping a sharp eye out for the promising ones. Some may have a tendency toward hollow-heart, a trait that allows an empty center to develop.

"Consumers don't like when they cut a potato open and it's half hollow," Miller says. "Some varieties and clones are more prone to hollow heart than others. It's controlled by a gene, so we try to look for clones that don't have that tendency."

The good ones continue on in the multiyear selection trials.

"If we find one that's good, we keep bringing them along," he says. "We take them to a certain point, and then (USDA researcher) Marty Glynn and another Minnesota scientist will run sucrose and sugar analysis on the advanced lines that we think are real promising, and within maybe two or three years of release."

By that time, the potato variety likely has been studied for nine or 10 years already. It takes 10 or 15 years to go from a cross to release of a new variety, he says.


Miller maintains the pedigrees of all the potatoes on his computer. One in particular, still just a number and not named, has made it through all those years of testing and culling.

"This is one of our more advanced, and we're trying to get people to look at this one," he says. "It's a nice, round red with shallow eyes."

Its shape would make it a winner with the fresh market consumers, where Miller hopes to see it headed.

"They don't like funny-shaped potatoes, and they don't like light pink or light red," Miller says. "The darker the red, the better. The rounder, the better, and whiter the flesh, the better. There's a late-season variety out there that's got real deep eyes; it's called red Pontiac. We're trying to beat that with something that is stored long term, that will hold its color and appeal to the consumer. Red Pontiac is a fantastic eating potato, no doubt about it. But it's not real consumer-appealing because it fades and it looks funny coming out of storage."

Others that have been released by the University of Minnesota or NDSU over the years have gone by the wayside, he says, though the russet Norkotah and a few varieties of red potato are still out there. Miller is expecting good things to come from his labors soon.

"My boss hasn't released a cultivar, yet, but we're close," he says. "We've got a couple that we want people to take a better look at. So we've got to try and get more seed."

Breeders are limited by the amount of seed they can produce because their supply of tillable acreage is limited. They can use local farmers, but not before the seed is cleaned and virus-free.

"We can clean up the seed. That's not a problem," he says. "The problem is having greenhouses big enough and clean enough to raise clean seed in a greenhouse setting. At a university, space is limited."


University greenhouses also are shared, preventing the strict access controls required to guarantee a breed as virus-free.

They could use culturists, where these controls are in place and state seed inspectors regularly survey the conditions.

"There's very limited access, so (they) can keep it clean," Miller says. "But it costs money."

When he writes up his reports on how well certain experimental crosses of potatoes have performed in his multiyear test regimens, everyone from Minnesota farm fields to research offices around the country to Frito-Lay and McDonald's product development offices will pick it up, wondering if the next great potato variety is in there.

Out of state potatoes

Aside from the university work, Miller also tests potatoes from other states, typically other universities doing research of their own.

"These other states send us what we call mini-tubers," he says. "It's much easier, it's much more convenient. With transplant seedlings, mortality is very high. Even under irrigation, you're talking about a real small plant. This (mini-tuber) is a potato. It'll grow."

They breed for all potato markets, he says, including the fresh market, which are mainly reds, the chip market, which is mainly round whites, and french fry processors, which are russets or long whites.


"Plus, we'll select for specialty niche markets, like the All Blue," he says.

This is a potato with blue skin and blue flesh, used to make blue potato chips.

"The flesh on it is unreal. Some people really like these."

Scientists scour the planet for new potatoes breeds, hoping to find traits they can use.

"There's thousands of wild types of potatoes out there, mainly from Peru, South America and Mexico," he says. "They're ugly and small, but they've got characteristics that ... these breeders want to get into a chipping potato, for example."

One disease researchers are trying to beat is late blight, which requires a trait termed "cold hardiness."

"A lot of these potatoes are raised high in the Andes mountains," Miller says. "They've got the cold hardiness, and they're trying to introduce it into a commercial variety."

These rarified potatoes are sent to a germplasm gene bank in Wisconsin, where anyone has access to the germplasms for crossing, he says.

"Every trial we have, we test for four diseases: early blight; late blight, which caused the Irish potato famine; common sca; and PVY, a virus that creates problems in the tuber tissue, mottling and reduces yields. It's a huge problem for the chipping industry."

Finding that perfect potato might seem to be a daunting task. But Miller's not worried. He has all the patience in the world. And he takes special pleasure in seeing his new potatoes come up every spring.

"The nice thing about working in potatoes is when we get into what's called a single-go field, or even a G-1 field, seeing the genetic diversity on the flowers and the colors," he says. "It's absolutely gorgeous. It's awesome."

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