Research and Collaboration have Big Economic Impacts on Michigan's Potato Industry

  • David Douches, Ph.D.
  • Professor, Department of Plant, Soil, and Microbial Sciences
  • Director, MSU Potato Breeding and Genetics Program
  • College of Agriculture and Natural Resources
  • Christopher M. Long
  • Outreach Specialist, Department of Plant, Soil, and Microbial Sciences
  • College of Agriculture and Natural Resources
David Douches, director of the MSU Potato Breeding and Genetics Program, discusses scientific findings during the variety evaluation session of the 2016 Winter Potato Conference hosted by the Michigan Potato Industry Commission

Potatoes appear to be an easy, inexpensive, reliable, nutritious, abundant, and durable staple of most any diet around the world. Dave Douches knows the science is not so simple.

As the program director of the MSU Potato Breeding and Genetics Program, Douches works with science colleagues, potato growers, shippers, processors, and others to advance the growth and development of healthy Michigan potatoes.

Douches leads a multidisciplinary program that integrates conventional breeding and new biotechnological approaches to address pest and disease resistance, along with storage capabilities. He and the MSU team work closely with members of the Michigan Potato Industry Commission to align research goals and educational efforts.

Collaboration and MSU Team: MSU's Long Investment

The Michigan Potato Industry Commission (MPIC) was established by amendment of Michigan Public Act 29 in 1970, with the primary mission of fostering and promoting an economically viable potato industry in Michigan, including research, promotion, education, and communication. MSU has a long history with the agriculture industry, and Dr. Douches has worked with the Commission for 28 years to develop, strengthen, and increase collaborative efforts. He serves on the Commission as an ex-officio member, at the request of the dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Chris Long is an MSU outreach/potato specialist who is the liaison between the Department of Plant, Soil, and Microbial Sciences and the Commission. He is responsible for on-farm research and demonstration trials, as well as grower-focused information meetings and other educational outreach.

Financial support for the Commission comes from a fee of five cents per 100 pounds of potatoes assessed to all Michigan farms with 20 or more acres of potatoes. Of that, three and a half cents is from growers and one and a half cents is from processors. Those monies then supply grant dollars that fund much of the research that is conducted by MSU. In many cases, growers also process, so the assessment is an investment into making sure the Michigan potato industry is strong and vital by supporting scientific research for continuing innovation.

"Our budget is invested in the collaborative work with MSU, so we are all aware of how important it is to work together for successful outcomes," said Mike Wenkel, MPIC executive director.

Economic Impact of the Potato Industry in Michigan

  • 1.6 billion pounds of potatoes are grown annually in Michigan
  • Michigan's potato industry adds an estimated $550M to the state economy and $1.24 billion through combined sales
  • 3,230 jobs are related to the industry
  • It represents 6% of Michigan's agricultural and food processing economy
  • 70% of Michigan's potato crop becomes potato chips
  • 28% of U.S. potato chips come from Michigan potatoes
  • Michigan is the largest northern supplier of potatoes to the chipping industry east of the Mississippi River

Source: 2015 study commissioned by the United States Potato Board, the National Potato Council, and the Michigan Potato Industry Commission

From Field to Market

Michigan has two potato harvesting times. The first occurs mid-July through October. Those potatoes typically are delivered straight from the field directly to the potato chip processors.

The second harvest is late October through December, and those potatoes go into storage for delivery January through March. With scientific advancements, late storage can keep the deliveries flowing from April through mid-July when the new crops are ready for harvest.

"It's an incredibly complex process," said Wenkel. "There is an annual sequential plan to manage the storage and consistent delivery of quality potatoes for the chip processors. Dr. Douches and the MSU team have worked with us through the years to collect data that has improved our understanding and management of storage science, thereby increasing continuous supply and stability for growers, shippers, and processors."

Genetics and Breeding

Dr. Douches has collaborated with leaders in the Michigan potato industry since his work began in the 1980's at MSU. During that time there has been continual dialogue about seeding, growing, storing, and processing potatoes for improved performance and delivery.

Seventy percent of the annual Michigan potato crop goes to chips, 20 percent is sold fresh, 5 percent goes to seed, and 5 percent goes to other uses.

The five percent seed dedication is critical to Douches' scientific research, especially storage pathology research that has helped to reduce crop loss in storage.

"Back in the 1980's we stored the potato crop until February, and after that it started to go bad. Those potatoes would reach their physiological maturity, and then go off color and lose their processing capabilities," said Douches.

That meant that during the winter the Michigan potatoes deliveries halted and potato chip processors were forced to turn to crops from southern states like Georgia and Florida until Michigan potatoes were again ready in the summer.

"Our goal has been to develop new varieties that grow and store in a manner that can take us into June and July, which almost completes the cycle in Michigan. That means potatoes don't have to be trucked 12 or 15 hours away to reach chip processors. It matters to everyone because of production costs, logistics, crop yield, storage space, and chip quality," said Douches. "With that said, it takes many different disciplines at MSU to reach our scientific objectives," said Douches.

According to the 2013 Michigan Potato Research Report, Michigan growers continue to look for promising, new, round white varieties that will meet necessary production and processing criteria. The focus is on evaluating chipping potatoes for yield, solids, disease resistance, and quality. Extended storage chip quality and storability are areas of extreme importance in round white potato production because long-term storage and processing quality is an important way of keeping the Michigan chip industry at the leading edge of the snack food industry.

Picture for Research and Collaboration have Big Economic Impacts on Michigan's Potato Industry

MSU AgBioResearch runs the Montcalm Research Farm, where a significant amount of the chip processing lines are tested.

The MPIC Storage and Handling Committee, including Chris Long, meets each November to discuss the current season's storage testing and review storage research priorities. They work closely with Douches and the Commission's Variety Release Committee to conduct chip processing variety evaluations. Those results provide vital data that contribute to decisions about which chips lines are favored for the commercialization process.

The box bin is an entry level point into storage profiling that allows the industry to learn about a varieties' physical and chemical storability before advancing to the bulk bin level. Chris Long and the storage committee team typically have 4-6 years of agronomic data on a variety before entering box bin testing. A storage profile consists of bi-weekly sampling of potatoes to obtain sucrose and glucose levels, chip color, and defect values. Each variety is evaluated for weight loss or shrinkage and pressure bruise. With this information, the storage history of a variety can be created, providing the industry with a clearer picture of where a line can or cannot be utilized in the snack food industry.

Other bins are designed to be used to evaluate the post-harvest physiology of the potato. The facility can be used to evaluate storage pathology or sprout inhibitor products. The industry recognizes the importance of being able to control disease and sprout development in storage and is committed to more research in these areas.

The Lake City Research Facility is a farming field where Douches and the team grow some variety lines from among the most promising for potato commercialization. They are monitored and evaluated for increased potato production before inclusion in storage and handling.

Economic Impacts

A hallmark of the collaborative work between Douches, Long, and the research team is the continual dialogue with partners. Farmers, growers, processors, and suppliers provide the essential knowledge about what grows well and what sells.

Horkey Brothers is a 5th generation farm in Dundee, Michigan. Travis Horkey works with his father, uncle, and brother on more than 1,000 acres in the southeastern area of the state. They provide fresh fruits and vegetables, including a significant potato crop.

"When my grandma was alive we would be in the fields measuring, taking notes, doing all the scientific stuff, but when we brought potatoes in the house they had to pass her test. If Grandma cooked them, ate them, and thought they looked and tasted good, then they were going to sell," said Horkey.

"If we put our family name on the bag, we want a good potato that people will buy, eat, and then come back to buy again. Repeat business is everything," Horkey said.

Long agrees. "The data provides critical knowledge, and working with people in the industry connects the science with the people who depend on potatoes for their livelihood," he said.

Phil Gusmano is vice president of purchasing for Better Made Snack Foods, Inc., in Detroit. The company has made potato chips since 1930, and they process 60 million pounds of chip potatoes each year. Gusmano also serves on the Commission as a gubernatorial appointment.

"MSU has put forth potato varieties that have saved us quite a bit of money," said Gusmano. "Even in the past five years the science has changed enough to store potatoes until the end of June or July, which means that we can continue to buy and ship Michigan potatoes. Dollars stay in our state because we don't have to go to Florida or Georgia beginning in April to get our potato supply. When you're paying to transport 50,000 to 80,000 pounds per truck load, you're talking about major savings."

  • Written by Carla Hills, University Outreach and Engagement
  • Photographs courtesy of Carla Hills, University Outreach and Engagement

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