MOSCOW — Potato storage is one of the backbones of Idaho’s iconic spud industry.
After being harvested, more than 80 percent of the state’s potato crop is stored until it’s needed by processors and other customers.
A lot can go wrong during storage, and having a good understanding of what goes on during that process is critically important to Idaho’s potato farmers, who collectively produce about 13 billion pounds of spuds each year — a third of the nation’s total potato supply.
Efforts by University of Idaho researchers to improve potato storage technology got a boost recently thanks to a $1 million investment to create an endowed research professorship.
Wayne and Peggy Thiessen donated $500,000 to create the endowment and the Idaho Potato Commission matched that donation.
The Wayne Thiessen Potato Research Professorship honors Thiessen’s career in the potato industry and he and Peggy’s long-time support of their alma mater.
The endowment creates a new position for a faculty member in U of I’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences that will focus on the physiology of potato storage, helping support Idaho potato growers, processors and shippers.
The endowment will support research needs and provide funding for graduate students.
University of Idaho scientists already do a lot of research on potatoes and spud storage, but this endowment will help improve those efforts, potato industry leaders said March 29 while attending the grand opening of U of I’s new Seed Potato Germplasm Laboratory.
Hammett potato farmer Nick Blanksma, who was chairman of the IPC when the endowment was created, said the endowed research position will help Idaho’s potato industry continue to meet its crucial goal of supplying consumers with a steady year-round supply of the highest quality potatoes.
“Storage is huge for our industry,” he said. “We harvest for about three months of the year so the other nine months out of the year we have to pull out of storage in order to have a year-round supply of potatoes (for) our customers and consumers throughout the world. Anything we can do to enhance the quality of the product, that’s what we’re after with that research position.”
Wilder potato farmer Doug Gross said about 80 percent of the spuds his operation produces are stored, for up to eight months.
“Storage physiology is a really important part of our industry,” said Gross, who formerly served on the IPC.
His wife, potato farmer Mary Hasenoehrl, who also served on the IPC, said having that research professorship “is crucial, so when we have issues with potato storage, we can go to that researcher and that researcher is going to know the answer to our problems or they will help us find answers.”
Wayne Thiessen grew up on a wheat farm in North Idaho and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in soil science while studying agriculture at the University of Idaho.
He met Peggy, his wife of 57 years, at U of I while she was studying family and consumer sciences and the two have been long-time supporters of the university.
Wayne Thiessen worked for University of Idaho Extension for several years and then joined Ore-Idaho Foods and retired 22 years later as general manager of procurement.
“The potato industry has been good to us, and since potato storage is so critical to our processing potatoes, (the endowment) was a way we could give back to the industry,” he said. “There are a number of ways you can experience storage loss and we felt like the research storage potato professor could make a contribution to aid the industry … by defining better storage practices and having those implemented by potato growers and processors.”
The endowed potato storage research position, which is located at U of I’s Kimberly Research and Extension Center, is held by Gustavo Teixeira, who began in April.
“The generous support by the Thiessens and the Idaho Potato Commission shows the importance of the U of I potato research program to Idaho’s agricultural industry,” CALS Dean Michael Parrella said in a news release. “We greatly appreciate the investment in our program, which will impact the potato industry for generations.”