When American self-taught botanist Luther Burbank turned his attention to the humble potato in the 1870s, he didn’t have much to work with.
Originally from South America, European varieties of the starchy tuber that grew well in the challenging climate of New England and Canada were tasteless at best, and unpalatable at worst. The varieties, including the Russet strain, that Burbank, who had made a name for himself developing the Shasta daisy, worked with were almost exclusively grown as livestock feed. But within a few years he came up with the Russet Burbank hybrid and more than 140 years later, it’s still the ‘name brand’ potato in North America.
“It’s proven to be extremely durable,” said Gary Sloik, manager of the Keystone Potato Producers’ Association.
But despite its longevity, it presents challenges for growers. However, the quest for a replacement has, so far, been unsuccessful.
Potato processors still love the Russet Burbank variety because it’s flavourful and stores extremely well, Sloik said.
To store well, a potato needs to reach what’s known as chemical maturity — the stage at which sugars in the growing tubers are almost completely converted to starch. Potatoes with unconverted sugars have colouration problems, particularly when sugars accumulate in the tuber tips causing dark unsightly ends in french fries.
But it takes upwards of 140 days for Russet Burbanks to reach that stage. As well, the variety is not particularly disease resistant nor an efficient user of inputs like nitrogen, said Curtis Cavers, an agronomist with the Manitoba Crop Diversification Centre in Portage la Prairie.
“Ironically I think if it had been developed 10 years ago, not in 1872, they’d never accept it today,” said Sloik. “But it’s what the customers — in particular the quick-serve restaurants — are accustomed to.”
Breeders have come up with alternatives, but none have stuck.
One of the first was the AC Shepody variety, developed in the early 1980s by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in New Brunswick. It was a short-season variety well suited to challenging Canadian conditions and produced very large tubers.
“It got some big acreage,” Sloik said. “At one point, I believe 40 per cent of P.E.I.’s potato crop was Shepody. But it’s now fallen by the wayside.”
The problem, Sloik said, was it simply didn’t store as well as the old standby.
Another variety that showed some initial promise was Ranger Russet, a USDA variety developed in the early 1990s and registered in Canada in 1993. It proved to be more resistant to certain disease complexes and growth defects like hollow heart. It also stored better than Shepody — but only until February, while Russet Burbank can be stored until the new crop is ready. Ranger Russet also had another serious flaw.
“It bruises quite easily,” Sloik noted. “That made storage a challenge.”
A more recent contender has been the Umatilla variety, developed by the USDA in 1998. It’s proven to be less susceptible to a number of diseases, as well as showing marked improvement in fry colour, frequently rating better than Russet Burbank in trials.
“It seems to have less sugar ends,” Sloik said. “However, out east, they seem to be having a fair few issues with fusarium.”
Another recent registrant is the Innovator variety, which came to Canada from the Netherlands in 2004, where it was developed in part from the Shepody line. It’s exciting because it’s become quite well accepted by the quick-serve restaurant industry in Europe, Sloik said.
“They’ve had some success with Innovator in other parts of the world, but the big (quick-serve restaurants) in North America are still skeptical,” Sloik said.
And that’s the other issue at play — the fast-food industry thrives on predictability and uniformity.
“In a lot of ways, I think it’s a ‘stick with the devil they know, rather than take a risk on the devil they don’t know’ situation,” said Cavers.
“We seem to be in this situation where varieties are developed that are really good at one thing — let’s say nitrogen efficiency or tuber size or disease resistance — but that’s the one thing they’re really good at,” added Sloik. “In a lot of ways Russet Burbanks are like that too, but it just so happens the one thing they’re really good at — storability — just happens to be what the customers want.”
Both Cavers and Sloik say it’s a frustrating situation for the industry, but one that won’t be resolved quickly.
“In the end, the customer is king,” Sloik said. “We have to produce the product they want.”
And while it won’t happen tomorrow, eventually a replacement will be found.
“It will happen, I am sure of that,” Cavers said. “Unfortunately I can’t say when it will happen.”