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Major upgrade for place where Idaho potatoes are 'born'

By Sean Ellis

Idaho Farm Bureau Federation

MOSCOW – The Idaho potato brand is all about quality and the origins of that quality has a new, state-of-the-art home.

About 200 people attended a groundbreaking ceremony March 29 for University of Idaho’s Seed Potato Germplasm Laboratory.

The new lab, which is the place where most Idaho potatoes are “born,” is a spacious, standalone facility on the university’s Moscow campus. The old lab was tiny and located within a few small classrooms inside a large building.

Members of Idaho’s potato industry said the difference between the new, $5.5 million facility and the old one is stark.

“It is a difference of day and night, truly,” said potato farmer Mary Hasenoehrl, who served on the Idaho Potato Commission when the plan to create the new facility was forged. “You couldn’t even compare the two.”

The facility maintains the germplasm or startup material that Idaho’s potato industry uses to produce about 90 percent of the potatoes grown in Idaho. About 60 percent of the spuds grown in the United States also originate from the facility.

“Idaho potatoes are synonymous with quality and that quality starts here; it starts in this lab,” said potato farmer and former IPC Commissioner Nick Blanksma.

The laboratory ensures the tissue culture that is used to grow potatoes is disease-free and high quality.

Michael Parrella, dean of the University of Idaho’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, told participants at the groundbreaking ceremony that “it’s within this very lab that the premium quality that Idaho potatoes are known for is established.”

The new facility has state-of-the-art clean rooms and includes the latest safety protocols, such as double-door entries, to ensure that tissue culture is not contaminated.

The facility maintains disease-free tissue culture for about 300 different potato varieties, according to Jenny Durrin, the program director for the Seed Potato Germplasm Laboratory.

All potato tissue cultures and mini-tubers that come out of the program are certified disease-free after undergoing a rigorous cleanup process.

There were never any sanitary issues with the previous facility but because the old facility included common-use spaces and a lot of foot traffic, the possibility existed, Durrin said.

“This facility is isolated and away from any of those ‘threats,’ as I like to call them,” she said. “The chances of (potato pathogens) getting into the clean site are very, very low in this facility.”

The U of I’s potato germplasm program establishes, maintains and distributes disease-free germplasm and mini-tubers to domestic and international seed potato growers and researchers.

The new facility, which went functional near the end of 2021, will allow the program to significantly ramp up production if it’s required by the potato industry.  

“Conservatively, I could triple the amount of plants that I produce here,” Durrin said.

The Idaho Legislature approved $3 million toward the facility, the IPC has provided $1.25 million, CALS provided $1 million and the rest of the money came from contributions from industry and individual growers.

“It took the involvement of a lot of other folks in the state to get this done,” Blanksma said.

That included Hasenoehrl and her husband, potato farmer and former IPC commissioner Doug Gross, who both donated money and a lot of time toward the effort.

Gross said ensuring Idaho potatoes get a clean, healthy start is critical to the state’s iconic potato industry.

“We need clean seed to get started with,” he said. “The Idaho brand isn’t worth much without quality.”

Gross said it also sends a clear message to customers and potential customers who visit the facility: “It shows them we really mean business.”

Idaho Potato Commission President and CEO Jamey Higham said the state’s potato industry brings in an estimated $5 billion per year to the state and he said it’s critical that the Idaho potato industry continue to find ways to increase quality because that also increases demand.

“The quality of Idaho potatoes begins with its seed supply and that’s why we are here today, to officially open this beautiful, state-of-the-art Seed Potato Germplasm Laboratory,” he said.

“We are extremely excited about this new investment in the Idaho potato industry.”