The Story Of A Seed Potato

The average American eats 46 lbs of potatoes every year, and Wisconsin is the third-largest potato-producing state.

Potatoes start from a seed potato, which looks like a regular potato. But it takes a lot of manpower, time, and resources to ensure these spuds are high quality for commercial growers, explains Brooke Babler. Babler is the associate director of the Wisconsin Seed Potato Certification program. They make sure seed potatoes are free of viruses and diseases.

The average time for a potato to get from its earliest generation to the grocery store is seven years. In a potato’s first three generations, it’s a seed potato. 

About 25 Wisconsin farmers grow seed across roughly 10,000 acres contributing to 7 percent of the nation’s certified seed.

The “foundation” seed is the elite seed. “Certified” seed is the next one down. Both mean the seed has low virus during the growing season and post-harvest tests in Hawaii. If the seed does not meet the foundation or the certified level, it’s “rejected” and therefore is just a regular potato.

Factors that influence seed potato quality include aphid pressure and weather, for example.

2023 was “the worst year we’ve ever had in the program,” says Babler. The certification program saw elevated virus levels in the normal field season and the post-harvest test in Hawaii. The reason? There were a lot of aphid movements that transferred viruses. It was not a unique issue to Wisconsin. It was due to the dry season.

In Wisconsin’s climate, the virus symptoms don’t express as well. The Hawaii test plots showcase symptoms better and there’s no frost. The test plots are in O‘ahu. But visuals are not enough. 700+ winter test samples went to Hawaii. About 350 came back to Wisconsin for lab testing. Without this process, potato yields would fall and costs would rise.

In 2024, the Wisconsin Seed Potato Certification program is working to support growers by making sure they have seeds to plant and looking at better spray methods.

It could be 3-5 years before we return to “normal” virus levels in seed.