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Researcher brings global perspective to Idaho potatoes

By Bill Schaefer

For Idaho Farm Bureau Federation

Farhrettin Goktepe couldn’t pass on the opportunity to develop and build a potato breeding program from the ground up for SunRain Potato Varieties.

So in 2010 Goktepe, his wife Zuhal and their three sons moved from Hermiston, Ore., to Idaho Falls to begin Potato Seed Solutions (PSS), the research and development arm for SunRain.

At the time he had been working as a potato breeder at Oregon State University’s Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center.

Goktepe said the PSS model is different from the public breeding programs at universities and the USDA in that the emphasis is on a return on investment and not on research and traits.

He said PSS more closely resembles the commercial model of potato variety development found in Europe or at private enterprises in the U.S. such as Frito-Lay and the J.R. Simplot Co.

“We want to put it in a market and it will make money,” he said.

PSS also is in a cooperative venture with Europlant, a seed developer based in Germany, and shares variety germplasm with it.

“With this business model, they convinced me to move into Idaho so I started in 2010-2011 and we didn’t have any facilities but the European side, they already have private breeding programs for generations,” he said.

During PSS’s first three years, Goktepe didn’t have any brick and mortar facilities on site in Idaho Falls.

“We were renting some greenhouses in Jerome, we didn’t have this facility until 2013,” he said of the greenhouses and culture labs now located west of Idaho Falls in an area surrounded by commercial fields of potatoes and barley.

“SunRain is basically the seed side of the business, they have exclusivity on the varieties,” Goktepe said, describing the relationship between PSS and SunRain.

Goktepe said that throughout the development of new varieties he works with Brit White, the general manager of SunRain, in determining what new varieties will be in demand by the industry and consumers. This process can take up to 10 years or even longer to reach an acceptable variety.

“SunRain is heavily involved in that selection and moving potatoes to the variety levels,” he said. “Anything that comes out of the breeding program, they have to see it at least two or three times.”

“We give him the direction of what markets or segments we think need opportunity,” White said of his interactions with Goktepe. “He’s very open to input and ideas. Then down the track we have an agronomy team at SunRain that will start qualifying the later stage because after about seven years he hands material back to us and we trial it across the country in multiple sites.”

Then SunRain will conduct product development trials from Idaho and the Columbian Basin, to Texas, Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida and North Dakota.

“He’s really good at his craft,” White said of Goktepe. “He’s doing an exorbitant amount with a very small team. It has to be lean and efficient in order to drive return.”

Goktepe said he separates variety development into two categories: consumer traits and agronomic traits.

“For agronomic traits, yield is the number one trait. Yield, yield, yield. It has to yield; it has to produce,” Goktepe said. “And then also disease resistance, quality, how easy it is to grow for seed multiplication, for commercial production.”

He said they also try to use the lowest amount of inputs when growing new varieties.

“We are trying to select under the lowest fertilizer application to get the low inputs and also to make it more sustainable for the growers because fertilizer prices are high and we are trying to select with low fertilizer application,” he said.

Goktepe said consumer traits that he emphasizes during research and development include taste and flavor as well as eye appeal, uniformity and size.

“It should be a nice, beautiful type potato,” he said. “We break it down to three different cooking types: firm, fairly firm and baking. We look at cooking quality and we look also at shelf life.”

Goktepe said that these days he is currently focused on specialty varieties like yellow flesh potatoes, red skin potatoes and mini tubers.

Potatoes are a global vegetable and PSS and SunRain are focused on increasing their share of that global market.