Potato harvest may have come to an end across the state, but there is still work to be done, especially when it comes to certifying seed potatoes. Over the years, Montana has risen to the forefront as one of the nation’s premier seed potato producers.

Seed potatoes in Montana undergo rigorous testing to ensure they are of the highest quality and free of disease. During the summer months, workers from the Montana Potato Lab scour the state collecting samples from seed potato plants, bringing them back to the lab in Bozeman, Mont., for testing. The MSU Potato Lab collected a total of 3.4 million samples across 10,000 acres this past summer.

Even though the summer is when seed potatoes are tested and evaluated in Montana, there are still a lot of questions that need answered. A post-harvest grow out – a final assessment – is conducted to answer those questions.

“The summer testing program provides a really good measurement of what your initial disease levels are, but it doesn’t tell us how much disease might move or spread around within a field during the year. So, for us to evaluate that, we take a large sample of tubers after harvest and produce a winter grow out,” explained Steve Hystad, supervisor for the Montana Potato Lab.

A sampling from each seed potato producer is taken for the post-harvest test. The seed potatoes are collected the first part of November and brought back to the lab where they are treated to break dormancy in an expedited fashion. Then, the tubers are loaded on a boat and shipped to Hawaii where they will be planted and studied.

“Hawaii’s climate is very conducive to growing potatoes in the winter months. You can almost watch the plants grow overnight,” Hystad said.

Just over 13 acres of Montana seed potatoes are planted in Hawaii, and after one month of growth, Montana Potato Lab director, Nina Zidack, takes a trip to the island state to collect a sample leaf from every single plant. Those leaves are then shipped back to Montana where they are screened and tested for viruses. In 2018 alone, 14,877 leaves were tested from the Hawaii post-harvest grow out.

Montana is in a unique situation where potato growers don’t necessarily feel a lot of disease pressure. This, in part, is due to the fact there is no commercial production of potatoes in the state. The Montana Potato Lab offers the only seed potato certification program for Montana growers, and as a result, quality can be closely monitored.  

“We want our state to keep having superior quality and to do that we have to do a mass amount of testing. We do this because we want to ensure if a potential outbreak were to occur, we would be able to respond very quickly,” Hystad stated.

Montana growers are the driving force behind all of this testing. In fact, the Montana Seed Potato Certification Program is entirely grower funded through acreage and registration fees.

Because of the grower initiative, Montana is starting to make a name for itself in the world of seed potato certification as the lab continues to implement new methodology. Recently, Montana’s program became the first in the nation to do dormant tuber testing, which provides growers important disease information at an earlier stage in the seed potato growth.

“Our growers are competing with everybody else nationwide, and a lot of our growers are starting to export to foreign markets where they potentially could be planting potatoes in February. Having early results is really key to developing new relationships for the export market,” Hystad pointed out.

Even though dormant tuber testing is cutting edge and exciting, Hystad explained a post-harvest winter grow out in Hawaii still provides vital information for Montana producers. There are some things, like chemical damage and varietal mixture, that can’t really be tested for in a lab setting.

The future of seed potato production is looking bright. Brand new technologies, coupled with steadfast testing methods like post-harvest winter grow outs, allow researchers to continue providing Montana growers with crucial information in a timely fashion.

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