A spudding interest

LAKE PLACID – There aren’t many crops as well-suited to grow in the North Country as potatoes.

On Monday, North Country Rep. Bill Owens toured the Uihlein II Farm of Cornell University’s potato research farm with a small group of potato farmers, including Steve Tucker from Tucker Farms in Gabriels, to learn what scientists there are doing to maintain healthy potato growth throughout the state.

It was his first time seeing the facility up close.

“There’s a big potato seed industry up here, and I’m always searching around to see if there’s the ability to create some jobs with something like this,” Owens said. “Secondarily, maybe we can cross-pollinate. They’re doing something with aeroponics here, and Clarkson (University) is doing the same thing, so I want to get them to talk about how they can get together and possibly increase the potato yield.”

Aeroponics is a growing method in which plants are suspended in a controlled environment and their roots misted with a nutrient-rich water. The method is favored by some farmers because the controlled environment helps keep diseases and pests at bay more so than traditional farming, and the direct contact of the plant’s roots with oxygen results in more robust plant growth.

“You put this in a big warehouse, you could have a 12-month growing cycle. You could grow a huge number of potatoes,” Owens said.

As Owens learned on his visit, aeroponics is only a small part of what goes on at the farm.

Chris Nobles, Uihlein II’s field manager, led the tour and explained that the farm was donated to Cornell University in 1961 to be used exclusively for producing basic potato seed stocks by Mr. and Mrs. Henry Uihlein II of Heaven Hill Farm in Lake Placid.

The current breeding program took root in 1977, when the Uihleins built a tissue culture greenhouse facility.

The combination of sandy soil, high elevation and cool climate of the region is ideal for growing potatoes.

Now the farm specializes in creating 115 varieties of pest- and disease-free seed potatoes, 65 of which are sold to farms throughout New York.

Scientists on the farm maintain up to 24 individual plants for each variety – a backup in case something goes wrong.

The sale of pest- and disease-free potatoes is an important step toward preventing the spread of pests and diseases.

The golden nematode, a pest that has infested many European countries, is of particular concern.

“If it (the golden nematode) got out into a field, you wouldn’t see anything for 10 years or 15 years, but then you’d begin to see the vitality of the crop drop,” said Keith L. Perry, associate professor of plant pathology at Cornell University. “It’s more of an issue of trade with moving crops.”

Potato farmers who buy seed potatoes from the Lake Placid farm can be sure they aren’t also buying a fresh supply of golden nematodes. Likewise, those same farmers can also be sure they won’t move pests to other locations when they sell their harvest.

The seed potatoes produced on Uihlein Farm are actually small potatoes, and are grown using a technique called tissue propagation.

“Tissue culture propagation is not guaranteed, but it is the best way we can ensure that potatoes are free from common potato viruses and a couple of the bacteria that can result in pretty serious potato pathogens,” Nobles said.

First, scientists take a tuber that’s been grown in the farm’s 125-foot long greenhouse and sterilize its surface.

“We are almost 100 percent certain that the potatoes we pull from our greenhouse are free from diseases because we have the ability to lab test everything for those common potato pathogens,” Nobles said.

The greenhouse potato is then given time to sprout. Next the sprout is removed and placed in a test tube containing a growth media – a milky gelatin consisting of agar, water and sucrose.

After five to six weeks, the sprout will develop into a new potato plant. Once that plant is established, more plants can be generated.

“That is really the basis for everything we do here,” Nobles said. “We’ll separate that plant into nodal leaf sections. Anywhere a leaf grows from a main stem is a node. Each node can be cut from the mother plant, and that’s how we apply the tissue culture plants leading up to phase two, which is the greenhouse phase.”

In the greenhouse phase, the potato plants are transplanted into one of the farm’s two greenhouse plots. The potatoes harvested in those greenhouse plots are the seed potatoes and are stored in a walk-in cooler for up to 11 months before being planted in the fields.

After a couple of years of field time to increase the volume of the crop, the potatoes are used as stock to create the next generation of seed potatoes.

Nobles said that growing a variety of potatoes is important to the farm since conditions at different farms can vary throughout the state. Scientists at the farm have even created two varieties for the North Country’s climate: Adirondack red and Adirondack blue.

“Unlike apples, potatoes are not being marketed by varieties,” Nobles said. “In a supermarket environment, the white potatoes you see could be one of 20 different varieties. That’s why regional marketing of potatoes is important. We’ve been developing potato varieties in New York state that are well-adapted to growth in the Northeast. They may look the same, but to growers, they grow differently.”

Shaun Kittle can reached at 891-2600 ext. 25 or skittle@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.