New potato varieties are shouldering aside Russet Burbank, long king of the hill in Washington potato production. The venerable variety accounted for nearly 90 percent of Washingtons potato crop in 1987. In 1999, the last year for which data is available, Russet Burbanks share of Washington potato production was a mere 41 percent as WSUs potato variety testing program helps farmers find more profitable varieties.
Russet Burbank is still the variety most commonly grown in Washington, but new varieties such as Ranger Russet are pushing it off the top of the hill. And, thats no accident. Cooperative Extensions Robert Thornton and other WSU scientists are having a lot to do with growers changing variety preferences.
Thorntons program is part of the Northwest TriState Potato Variety Development Program, which also involves scientists at the University of Idaho, Oregon State University and the USDA Agricultural Research Service. Thorntons potato variety evaluation program is also supported by the Washington Potato Commission.
Thorntons program evaluates new clones being developed by breeders around the world. Many of the new lines are selections from the USDA program at Aberdeen, Idaho. Other clones in the project come from breeding programs in North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Texas, Maine and as far away as Europe. The program evaluates such factors as ease and cost of growing, disease resistance, yield, eating and processing quality.
One of the varieties tested in Thorntons program, Ranger Russet, is among the varieties replacing Russet Burbank. The bulk of the production in Washington State is used for processing into French fries. Ranger Russet has the size and quality attributes for processing earlier than Russet Burbank and is a valuable addition to the early harvested processing market.
Washington growers produce the highest potato yields in the world. Washington is the nations second leading potato producer with more than 22 percent of the nations crop, and potatoes are Washingtons third most valuable commodity, after apples and milk. In 1999, the last year for which data is published, Washingtons potato crop was valued at nearly $500 million.
Growers currently are closely following the evaluation of new clones that have some resistance to late blight, a costly and increasingly difficult disease to control in Washington potato fields. A recently tested clone, A90586-11, shows some promise. The clone has acceptable horticultural characteristics and some resistance to late blight, the disease that caused the Irish Potato Famine and which is an increasing problem in Northwest potato production. The varieties Russet Burbank and Ranger Russet require an average nine fungicide applications a year to control late blight. The new line may allow a reduction to only five applications, saving growers about $73 per acre.