What’s Happening on the Farm: Tidewater Research Station serves up Irish potato research

by | Nov 29, 2014

Farms are places of year-round activity. There is almost always something going on, regardless of the season. Each month we highlight one of our research stations and the work taking place on the farm during that month as well as give a little insight into the world of farming and innovative agricultural research.

There are 18 research stations across the state, operated in partnership between the department, N.C. State University and N.C. A&T State University. The stations are strategically located to account for different soil types, climates, crops and livestock production. Department staff manage the day-to-day operations of the stations and the research field work, while researchers from the universities set up the parameters of the research. This month we are highlighting the Tidewater Research Station in Plymouth. 

Tidewater Research Station in Plymouth

Tidewater Research Station in Plymouth

This time of year, Irish, or white, potatoes are likely on the minds of cooks around the state as they prepare for their big holiday meal. Potatoes are also on the mind of research operations manager Jewell Tetterton and his staff at the Tidewater Research Station in Plymouth, but for much different reasons.

The 19 full-time Tidewater employees are busy planting new potato seed stock in two 3,000-square-foot greenhouses.  The 23,000 to 25,000 different plant crosses will fill the greenhouses and become the basis for the 2015 growing season’s Irish potato breed trials, with the hope that a new plant crosses will eventually be released for commercial production, Tetterton said. That process can take anywhere from five to 12 years and involves multiple years of growing a specific plant, detailed data collection and even taste testing to see how the potato stacks up on flavor.

From their greenhouse starts, Tetterton said 18,000 to 20,000 different plant crosses will make it to the field. But then the numbers drop dramatically. “Only 2.5 to 4 percent will go on to the next generation of research,” he said.

While the 2014 potato harvest has long ended, Tetterton said that even though he and other workers may “not be in the field, we’re messing with potatoes near about all year.” That’s because research involving potatoes is pretty labor intensive, whether it involves hand planting all the seed stock, hand planting plants with good prospects in the field or hand harvesting the crop to collect production data.

The Tidewater Research Station was established in 1943 and also includes research projects involving beef and swine, field crops, aquaculture and horticultural crops. The station has more than 1,550 acres, with the bulk in timber, field crops and pasture. It is the only one of the 18 state-operated stations with an Irish potato plant breeding program, which makes sense given the station is in the heart of the state’s potato-growing region. Some of the current potato breeds grown commercially in the state, such as Yukon Golds, Superior, Altantic and Snowdens, were developed through research trials at Tidewater.

While those potatoes have been good producers, researchers continue to develop varieties that are more productive and have greater disease resistance. Improving varieties is one way researchers help farmers increase their bottom line, and also help meet the long-range need to feed a growing world population.

“It’s been about five to seven years since we have had a new release,” Tetterton said. “But there are some good prospects out there right now; two or three that are looking promising, but they have probably another two to five years of research to go.”

Tetterton said most people would probably be surprised to learn just how labor intensive research work is for potatoes. “Every seed piece is dropped by hand and every plant is harvested by hand,” he said. “And we can’t cross-contaminate one plot with the next.”

The station averages planting between 12 and 17 acres of potato trials, with test plots situated every 21 feet, with 3-foot breaks between plots. “It takes us about four weeks to get through hand harvesting all the potatoes,” he said. Each plot has a dedicated tote for harvesting purposes that is clearly labeled to avoid confusion on which plant cross is being harvested.

Once the potatoes are harvested, they are graded, weighed and checked for taste. Literally, potatoes will be cut up into chips, fried and tasted by the staff. Not every potato will be cut up, so around 1,500 pounds of good, No. 1 stock potatoes end up being donated to the local food bank.

Another thing Tetterton said might surprise people is how much of North Carolina’s $36 million potato crop eventually becomes potato chips. He estimates 90 to 95 percent of them are shipped north to become potato chips. The remaining will be sold as fresh potatoes.

Who knew so much is behind those mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving?