What ever happened to Lady Christl?
The quest for the perfect potato never ends for breeders.
January 31, 2012 By Rosalie I. Tennison
The quest for the perfect potato never ends for breeders. The numerous traits that must be combined into a single clone are a challenge. When breeders find a promising potato clone, they look for growers and researchers who are willing to evaluate the potential variety in plots; the more variable the growing conditions, the better. Sadly, some very promising varieties never make it to market, and the explanation as to why they don’t is complicated.
|Lady Christl grown in a heavily scab infested plot with no irrigation. The crop was practically scab-free. Photo courtesy of OMAFRA
According to Ontario potato specialist Eugenia Banks, very few clones are given a name and released as a variety for commercial production. There are growers who are interested in trying new varieties, she says, particularly if they think the variety will solve a problem such as scab. But, they also need to know how the variety will perform in different soils, its resistance/susceptibility to diseases and herbicides, its response to fertilizer and its maturity. Banks believes breeders should provide this information when they introduce a new variety, which, while more costly, would facilitate the adoption of promising new varieties rather than having them end up on a growing pile of rejects.“
When breeders create a variety, they try to make it unique with special benchmarks, but these varieties end up as all other varieties in the market,” explains Frederic Tremblay of La Patate Lac-Saint Jean in Quebec. “For example, a breeder creates a really nice red variety with a very good taste that is easy to grow in the field with good yields and quality, and they name the variety to distinguish it from others. But, in the store, the variety appears in a bag just like all the other reds.” As a result, growers will produce the varieties they are comfortable with and may not try a new one because it may require slightly different management, he suggests. The solution would be to link the breeder with the consumer, as happens in Europe, where consumers taste new varieties before seed is provided and commercial production begins.
Banks is famous for testing as many new varieties as possible in Ontario field trials, but often some of the varieties that show promise are never adopted by growers. Take Lady Christl, a strain that Banks believed was “a great variety.”
“I thought Lady Christl would be the solution to growers’ problems,” she recalls. “Lady Christl resists scab, has smooth skin, an even set, and yields well.”
Few varieties come close to that ideal
One Ontario producer grew a couple acres of Lady Christl to “give it a try,” reports Banks, which is the first step in the adoption of a new variety. Unfortunately, Lady Christl developed internal brown spots, rendering the crop unmarketable.
Banks says the variety is grown in Mexico, but she doesn’t know if the internal brown spot problem occurs there or if the variety developed the spots under the unique growing conditions that occurred in Ontario.
“Companies marketing seed potatoes introduce new varieties slowly for this reason,” explains Banks. “There can be surprises when a new variety is grown in another area where the soils and weather are different.”
Another example of a promising variety is Altitude
Introduced as a round, white potato with high yield suitable for the fresh market and good for french fries, Altitude appeared to be the greatest variety since Superior. But, in Quebec, Altitude disappeared from the fields within a season of its promising launch.
“I wouldn’t say Quebec growers didn’t like Altitude,” comments Tremblay. “But, if you want a variety to take over the market of another, it has to surpass other varieties of the same category on at least one of these points: yield, appearance and resistance to disease.”
However, it appears that Altitude’s major downfall was its slow emergence, despite its many good attributes, and Quebec growers were put off. According to Banks, there is no perfect potato. Growers need to know the strengths and weaknesses of a variety to avoid costly mistakes. “For example, the fresh market wants an early white potato and a breeder develops one, but it is susceptible to scab,” she explains. “That means growers cannot grow the variety in a scab-infested field, so the variety is never accepted unless it can be grown in fields that are scab-free.” Another common problem is getting the fertility right, she says. Some potato varieties need more nitrogen, and poor yield may be due to not top-dressing when it was needed.
Potato production is a high-stakes game
Canada has Plant Breeders’ Rights and breeders from around the world are interested in introducing new varieties to the Canadian market. But, varieties come and go quickly and many never make it to the field. If a new variety doesn’t perform to expectations or live up to its advance publicity, growers won’t grow it a second season.
“When growers have success with an old variety, they don’t want to change,” comments Tremblay. He suggests that if consumers could choose only the varieties they like with variety identification, growers might be more willing to give newer breeds a chance.
So, growers stick with what they know and forgive the occasional problems from the old varieties, comments Banks. New varieties are not so easily forgiven.
“Superior has been around for 40 years and is scab resistant, is early, and has nice white flesh, but it doesn’t have smooth skin and yet it remains in the market,” says Banks. “One year Superior developed pink eye, which is a physiological problem, and the crop had to be sold for processing,” she continues. “If that had happened to a new variety it would never be grown again even though under different conditions the following year, that grower might have a great crop.”
Plant breeders solve problems, but introducing a new variety, finding where it is adapted and evaluating how to grow it to get the best yield and quality, requires finesse. Many good varieties have been rejected because of false steps along the way.
Perhaps growers feel they cannot afford to have failures and thus stick to what they know, but with this hesitancy to try something new, they might truly be missing the greatest variety since Superior.