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Basin growers, researchers work on specialty potato varieties
by Ty Beaver, H&N  11/14/06

   It never hurts to look ahead.
   Even with local fields empty of crops and the potato sheds full of this year’s harvest, growers and agricultural researchers in the Klamath Basin are working to develop and improve business. The specialty market for potatoes — which includes a variety of colors, textures and tastes — is attracting a lot of interest.
   “I think it has the potential to generate some good revenues,” said Brian Charlton, extension and cropping systems agent.
   The Klamath Basin Research and Extension Center campus on Washburn Way is the initial screening site for potato varieties within the Pacific Northwest Tri-State Group. The group includes researchers from Washington State University, Oregon State University and the University of Idaho.
   10,000 varieties
   As the initial screening site, Charlton said, the research campus has screened about 10,000 varieties for the past four out of five years. Researchers and growers help select the best varieties after this stage, and those continue through more screenings and trials. Several varieties are in regional trials that could land them on the market in the next few years.
   The varieties getting attention from local growers, though, are the specialty ones, Charlton said. These potatoes don’t look like a russet or small red and often have a visual characteristic that makes them stand out.
   A reason for the interest can be tied to the Atkins diet and other low-carbohydrate diet fads that have occupied health-conscious people for the past several years. By offering a uniquelooking product, those in the industry hope to bring people back to eating potatoes, Charlton said.
   Dan Chin, owner of Wong Potatoes, said he has watched the screening efforts at the research center with interest. His company searches for fresh products with a different color, taste or texture to attract consumers.
   “We are always looking for some niches,” he said.
   Appearance is the first thing that a consumer encounters in a product, so a unique look can help lure more potential consumers. Cooking requirements and taste can further ensure a regular buyer, Chin said.
   Charlton said he has also seen interest in specialty potatoes from processors and growers of chip varieties. Processors are experimenting with specialty potato chips with unusual colors such as deep blues and purples or patterns such as red and pink bands.
Dealing with challenges
   New varieties do present challenges, Chin said. When a new product comes on the market, it must either replace another, or find new shelf space, competing against many other items grocery stores already have.
   Despite the challenges, Chin said, he is seeing genuine interest in developing specialty varieties.
   Charlton said that one benefit of developing the varieties is that they often reach the market faster after development than others and products could be showing up on shelves in the next few years.

New potato varieties are displayed at the Klamath Basin Research and Extension Center campus on Washburn Way. The campus is the initial screening site for new potato varieties in the Pacific Northwest Tri-State Program. Photo courtesy of Brian
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