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Spud variety licensing shift under way

Tam Moore
Capital Press Staff Writer 3/3/06

TULELAKE, Calif. – Like an airplane that approached beneath the radar then suddenly appeared overhead, the Potato Variety Management Institute popped into existence this winter. It’s the brand-new licensing agency formed to handle spuds developed by the cooperative Idaho, Oregon and Washington potato breeding program tied to state universities.

Bill Brewer, chief executive officer of the Oregon Potato Commission, gave PVMI a public launch Feb. 16 at the annual Klamath Basin Potato Growers Seminar.

Directors from the three states are working their way through policy built around the notion of “protecting our varieties and not making them public,” in the words of Clen Atchley, an Idaho grower who heads the committee that runs the tri-state breeding program. He announced the concept one year ago.

Brewer said a lot has happened since then.

The universities will continue the cooperative breeding, and seek federal Plant Protection Act registration as named varieties are released. Idaho Crop Improvement Association will be the contractor handling royalty collection.

“PVMI will do the marketing on new varieties,” said Brewer. And it will “be aggressive on collection of royalties.”

It’s a radical departure for the universities that for decades released developed crop varieties to the public at no fee. Under the new concept, PVMI will sell licenses to firms involved in variety distribution. Royalties will come from seed potato growers who will pass the cost on to commercial producers. After university cost of getting the variety patent is taken off the top, money will be split between PVMI’s administrative costs and financing university breeding programs.

Brewer said the board is talking of a three-tiered license and royalty system. The fees haven’t been set but there’s talk of a $250, $500 and $750 arrangement depending on where the spuds go. Those licensed for Idaho, Oregon and Washington use would have the lowest cost, those licensed for distribution in the continental United States the second level, and those allowed international distribution the highest fee.

The theory, he said, is that growers in the tri-state area put their potato commission assessments into the program, so they ought to have the advantages. When Atchley made the committee announcement last year, he said it’s conceivable that what’s become PVMI might limit planting of some varieties to only the tri-state area. Brewer said the institute board hasn’t tackled that issue yet.

There are at least two models for how Western states handle publicly developed potato varieties, said Oscar Gutbrod, a retired Oregon State University seed certification specialist who consults with the industry. In Texas, multiple licenses are given to market new varieties, while in Colorado the university limits the license to one company.

There may be a more immediate problem, Gutbrod said, and that’s PVMI’s notion of favoring the three states. A lot of seed potato production for the Pacific Northwest comes from Montana. Gutbrod said he’s heard grumbling from those growers as they wait for PVMI to shake out its policy.

Brewer found his own version of the stateline issue as he spoke here in a meeting hall less than one mile into California. Tulelake growers wanted to know if they’ll have to pay a higher royalty than their collegues on the Oregon side of the border. The University of California Intermountain Research and Extension Center, in cooperation with Oregon State University, actually grows many of the varieties that are part of the tri-state trials.

During the transition, Brewer said PVMI will get assignment of the various variety development agreements made by the universities. They won’t change the terms of those licenses. The new policies still evolving will apply to new spud varieties as they are released and patented under the Plant Protection Act.

Brewer said 13 emerging Idaho varieties, including some developed in cooperation with U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research station at Aberdeen, and nine Oregon varieties are close to release. Meanwhile in Idaho, the potato commission is still negotiating terms on some variety contracts that Idaho Research Foundation last year assigned to University of Idaho.

Staff writers Patricia R. McCoy and Dave Wilkins contributed to this report. Tam Moore is based in Medford, Ore. His e-mail address is tmoore@capitalpress.com.



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