Alaska’s spuds not immune from lawmakers

The future of Alaska’s certified seed potato production is up in the air following this year’s legislative session.

The Plant Materials Center’s Potato Program through the Alaska Division of Agriculture was approved for one time increment funding, and will require legislative  action to continue after this year. Without access to clean spuds, propagation of the popular crop may lead to the spread of disease and pests on the Kenai Peninsula, and in other communities statewide.

“During this session the program as a whole was up for discussion,” said Material’s Center Program Manager Brianne Blackburn. “It is not normally singled out in the budget.”

The program includes a full-time lead, and a seasonal support staff member, Blackburn said. Agricultural Inspector Mia Kirk is the only person who can conduct seed potato inspections in Alaska. As of now her position, which is separate from the program, is not in any danger of being cut.

Alaska has a particularly strict set of guidelines for seed potato production, Blackburn said. Most states that have climates ideal for growing the tubers have certification programs, she said.

The Materials Center is the only place in the state that grows first-year seed potatoes, or Generation Zero (G0) potatoes. It is located in Palmer.

Certified farms around Alaska purchase the generation zero spuds and cultivate the crop for commercial production, Blackburn said. The potato program also assists farmers with incorporating safe management practices on their land.

With the state questioning if the program should continue, local growers were concerned that more seed potatoes would be store bought.

“Alaska has a good record of disease-free spuds, and we want to keep it that way,” said Central Peninsula Garden Club President Marion Nelson. “We don’t want any infiltration. It is easy enough to get disease even with a lot of protection.”

Right now there are a number of uncertainties about the health of Alaska’s potatoes, Blackburn said. Potato leafroll virus and Potato virus Y, “the two on everyone’s mind,” are popping up more frequently during on-site inspections, she said.

It is unclear if the viruses are actually occurring more frequently, or the program is focused on testing for them more accurately, Blackburn. It hasn’t yet resulted in significant crop loss, but that is why access to the clean seeds and having a program that addresses management practices is important in terms of prevention, she said. That is why more data is needed, and could be collected through the program.

“There were growers that lost acres of production due to failing inspections, (because of) disease symptoms present,” Blackburn said. “So while the diseases aren’t yet impacting yields, growers are still feeling the loss.”

Janice Chumley, Kenai Peninsula District IPM Program Aide for the University of Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service, has been working with the potato program for 15 years.

“By gutting that program they would open it up to people importing potatoes that can bring in diseases,” Chumley said.

Diseases that affect potatoes around the globe, such as late blight, are not established in Alaska, Chumley said.

There are roughly 300 varieties grown statewide, Chumley said. There is an international market for Alaska’s seed potatoes because buyers know purchasing from the state means getting clean spuds, she said.

“It is a huge economic driver,” Chumley said. “Millions of dollars in potatoes are grown and sold in Alaska each year.”

Don McNamara and Donna Rae Faulkner are co-owners of Oceanside Farms in Homer, the only certified potato seed growers on the Kenai Peninsula.

Last year the operation produced and sold roughly 2,000 pounds of potatoes from rows that altogether stretch three-quarters of a mile, McNamara said. This year they are aiming to double that amount, “God willing,” he said.

The couple grows 10 different varieties, including two of McNamara’s favorite, Robinta, oval-shaped spuds with red skin and white flesh, and Magic Myrna, “the wanna-be sweet potato.”

McNamara said they started working with certified seed potatoes five years ago.

The “seeds,” which are already sizeable growths, are used for with the sole purpose of being the starts for next year’s crop for about eight years and then discarded, McNamara said. Then fresh generation zero seeds are purchased, he said.

“A fresh seed is less likely to have disease and viruses,” McNamara said. “It’s all about disease and virus.”

Don Adams, “the potato guy,” produces nearly 500 pounds of potatoes annually. He sells the yields of his 17 varieties at Central Kenai Peninsula farmers markets and keeps them for personal use. Adams only uses certified potato seeds, some of which he’s purchased from Oceanside Farms.

“I don’t grow the standard potatoes,” Adams said. “Anything that has any color to it is better than the standard russet.”

In fact, Adams throws out his potatoes and replenishes his 1,000 square feet of garden bed with new ones between every three to five years.

It is too risky to buy and propagate anything but certified seed potatoes, Adams said. It minimizes the possibility of introducing diseases into the garden, he said.

Kelly Sullivan is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.