Selecting for Resilience in Low-input Potato Cropping Systems: Connecting Farmers and Breeders with the Genetic Resources of an Underutilized Potato Germplasm Collection

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2012: $190,512.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2016
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
Dr. Amy Charkowski
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Annual Reports

Information Products


  • Agronomic: potatoes


  • Education and Training: farmer to farmer, on-farm/ranch research, participatory research
  • Pest Management: genetic resistance
  • Production Systems: transitioning to organic

    Proposal abstract:

    The goal of our organic potato research program, which began in 2007, is an integrated, participatory potato breeding, variety evaluation and seed potato production system that serves the needs of the approximately 220 organic and low-input potato farmers in the Midwest. Modern potato varieties have been bred using conventional practices and may not be suited for organic and low input production systems. Our first objective is to evaluate 100 potato varieties for their immediate value in low-input and organic potato cropping systems, and for the resilience of their performance across multiple environments in a participatory trial. The 12 participating farmers will evaluate variety performance with guidance from researchers, focusing on traits such as plant vigor, pest and disease resistance, yield, taste and market appeal. Varieties will also be evaluated in disease nurseries located on University research farms for their resistance to common potato diseases. Our second objective is to use modern genetic tools to characterize the diversity of these potato varieties to determine the potential for crop improvement through a breeding program for low-input cropping systems. Information on potato production and variety characteristics will be provided to growers and researchers through farming conferences, peer-reviewed publications, variety descriptions as Wikipedia pages, and printable fact sheets. Development of a participatory variety trialing and seed production system requires building a community. In addition to evaluating our project by its scientific output, we will evaluate it by interviewing participating farmers and undergraduate students throughout our project to identify and address challenges and opportunities that occur during this project.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Objective 1: Evaluate potato varieties for their immediate value in low-input potato cropping systems, and for the resilience of their performance across multiple environments.

    This project will support participatory on-farm evaluation of 100 potato varieties from the Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) collection at multiple organic farms. The SSE potato collection contains over 900 potato varieties, including many heirlooms unavailable from any other source. This collection is an underutilized resource for organic growers and as a source of parental material to breed for organic conditions. Prior research by our group has identified 100 unique or rare varieties that are of interest due to reported disease resistance and tuber or maturity characteristics, and we are in the process of producing disease-free plants for these varieties, most of which were infected by tuber-borne potato viruses. This is the first opportunity to evaluate the true potential of these varieties without the interference of pathogen infection.

    Variety evaluation will extend throughout the growing season and into the storage period, and will include the responses of customers and other consumers of the potatoes (including the farm families). Additionally, varieties will be evaluated in university disease nurseries to assess disease resistance. Evaluations from all sites will be collated, analyzed, and communicated to participants each year as progress reports, and in years 2 and 3 of the project, these progress reports will include comparisons to previous years. A short-term outcome of these evaluations for the participating farmers will be a greater familiarity with the differential performance of potato varieties across multiple years and locations, and a greater understanding of the resilience of performance across multiple environments shown by different varieties. Our previous variety trials have enabled us to make comparisons of marketable yields between farms and between varieties, and have clearly demonstrated that organic potato production is not reaching its full potential. Thus we are confident that the short term outcome of a greater understanding of variation in potato variety performance will lead to intermediate and long-term outcomes of farmers selecting potato varieties that perform well in their growing environment and that show resilience against environmental stresses. Selection of varieties well-adapted to local environments will increase farm profitability and will sustain environmental quality and natural resources by reducing inputs needed for productive potato crops.

    We will provide farmers with disease free seed potatoes for varietal evaluations. Although this project will not directly compare the use of disease free seed potatoes with seed potatoes that have been saved from previous crops (and are likely to contain tuber-borne pathogens), we will use opportunities to share information about tuber-borne diseases and seed potato quality with farmers. We expect that this, plus direct observation of the health of the variety trials, will have a short-term outcome of increased understanding of the importance of healthy seed potatoes to ensure potato crop health, and an intermediate-term outcome of increased use of health-certified seed potatoes. The use of health-certified seed potatoes has been shown to increase farm profitability, and this is expected to hold true for organic farms.

    An important part of the variety evaluations will be farm visits by undergraduate student researchers to record farmer observations of potato varieties. These visits are expected to create beneficial short-term outcomes for both farmers and students, in building rapport and mutual respect between farmer and researcher. An intermediate-term outcome will be a larger pool of young researchers with experience in participatory research, an understanding of organic farm environments, and respect for farmer knowledge and experience; an outcome that we expect to benefit organic farmers and rural communities in the intermediate and long term.

    Fall and winter grower meetings will provide opportunities for growers and researchers to discuss progress. Progress reports will be provided to participating farmers before these meetings. We expect that the experience of participating in data collection, providing their observations of variety characteristics, and discussing varietal performance with their peers, will give farmers a deeper understanding of the process of crop improvement, increased confidence in their abilities to participate and contribute to this process, and an awareness of their ownership of this program. These short term outcomes are expected to increase farmer involvement in planning research, breeding and variety evaluation for organic and low-input potato production in the intermediate and long term. The sustainability and impact of a breeding and variety
    evaluation program for organic growers will depend largely on the sustained investment of farmers, since on-farm evaluation by farmers provides a degree of relevance that is impossible to replicate on research farms. Over the long term, we expect that participation in the improvement of the crops they grow will be an empowering experience for the farmers, and will improve their satisfaction in their work and their quality of life.

    As of April 2013, we have 54 varieties ready for distribution. We are also assisting a Wisconsin farmer in transitioning from conventional potato production to organic seed potato production.

    Objective 2: Characterize the genetic diversity of potato varieties to determine the potential for crop improvement through a breeding program for low-input cropping systems.

    We will characterize the genetic diversity of the 100 selected varieties from the SSE collection, using amplified fragment length polymorphisms (AFLP) and the single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) marker platform developed in recent years by the potato breeding
    community as part of the Solanaceae Coordinated Agriculture Project (SolCAP). This work will generate a large genotypic and phenotypic data set that can be used in conjunction with data from the SolCAP project to identify molecular markers potentially useful for early generation selection during cultivar development. Our improved understanding of the genetic diversity in the SSE potato collection as it relates to phenotype stability and other useful traits is a short term outcome that will provide breeders with an understanding of the type of genetic diversity available from the SSE potato collection and the best way to measure and utilize it. Both the SNP and AFLP data sets will provide dense markers which, when evaluated along with phenotypic data, will allow evaluation of associations between DNA sequences and traits of interest to organic farmers, such as disease resistance. The SNP dataset will be especially valuable because
    it is applicable across a diverse array of genotypes. The SNP and AFLP data will also be used to determine relationships among SSE varieties, providing guidance for breeders when selecting diverse parents with traits of interest for breeding new potato varieties adapted to organic production systems – an expected intermediate term outcome. The expected long term output of this work is the development of a participatory potato breeding program focused on the needs of organic farmers, and the release of new potato varieties adapted to organic and low input production and having characteristics desired by organic farmers and consumers.

    As of April 2013, our collaborators at Seed Savers Exchange have transferred a few hundred tissue culture lines to our lab. Unfortunately, the variety descriptions are lacking in detail and in some cases are not available at all. We have started to grow the plants in our greenhouse to confirm tuber shape and color and other variety characteristics. From these approximately 300 lines, we will chose 100 for further evaluation. An undergraduate students is leading this portion of the project for his senior honors thesis.

    The project website is here:

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.