The humble potato requires a lot of coddling of its seed stock compared to the seeds of other food plants. Amy Charkowski leads the oldest program in the nation that aims to provide seed potatoes the protection they need.
Charkowski, professor of plant pathology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, leads the Wisconsin Seed Potato Certification Program Wisconsin. The program was launched as a partnership between the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the state’s farmers. Since 1913, Charkowski says, it has ensured that, “Wisconsin farmers have had very, very high quality seed potatoes.”
“We have very well educated farmers who do a great job,” adds Charkowski. Seed potato buyers, “really aren’t going to find a better product much of anywhere else.”
“Growing seed potatoes is a very difficult thing for farmers to do,” Charkowski points out. What makes seed potato production difficult is that fact that potatoes are regrown from their root-like tubers. Most other food plants are grown from seed. These tubers must be treated as gently as fresh produce, and they can easily harbor disease.
“The certification is important because it helps reduce pests and diseases in the seed crop,” says Charkowski. “It helps ensure the variety that is being produced, and certification is tied with the university. We’re able to provide the latest findings in disease control and reduction almost immediately.”
Asked how the program has changed over time, Charkowski replies, “Remarkably little. The goals that they set forth in 1913, where they wanted to have a healthy seed crop and they wanted to have it of known varieties, that’s still what we do today.”
“I think it’s amazing how stable the program has been,” adds Charkowski. “The cost of certification adjusted for inflation essentially hasn’t changed since 1914. I think part of the reason it’s been stable is it’s been a program that’s needed to maintain a healthy, productive crop, and then also it’s run as a partnership between the farmers and the university.”
Wisconsin seed potatoes set a high standard, and now, for the first time, they are part of a nation-wide certification process. That change will help facilitate international sales of seed potatoes.
“When an international buyer comes to the U.S., they want to learn what certification means here, and make sure that we’re certifying for diseases and pests that they consider to be important,” says Charkowski.
“With the new agreement that’s in place now, we have a single system that goes across the whole United States,” Charkowski says. “And that’s what’s changed: it’s made it easier for farmers to market their seed and it’s made it easier for the importing country to understand what they’re getting.”
A number of tropical countries are buyers or likely buyers of Wisconsin seed potatoes. “Brazil, for example, has a lot of potential,” says Charkowski. “Thailand is a place that Wisconsin farmers have exported to and has a lot of potential.” Sri Lanka, India and some Caribbean islands are among other possibilities.
Charkowski points out that northern Wisconsin’s cold climate makes it uniquely suited to seed potato production. “A lot of the countries that are looking to import seed are countries that are tropical or semi-tropical and don’t have cold winters.” In Wisconsin and other northern states, “A lot of insect pests and diseases are killed over the winter, so we have a much lower insect and disease pressure here.”
That means that Wisconsin can produce consistently high-quality seed potatoes, while tropical countries must buy new seed nearly every year. The new national certification program represents another milestone in Wisconsin's strong history of producing the best seed potato stock.