IDAHO, USA — Two Idaho universities are teaming up to seek how Idaho's famous crop, the potato, will change over a period of smoke exposure from wildfires.
Boise State University and University of Idaho will conduct a two-year study, funded by $125,000 from the federal Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, into three potato varieties.
Research and work on the project continues, but the team of Broncos and Vandals are aiming for meaningful results very soon.
“I would say it's the most comprehensive study to date. Everything from looking at three different varieties of potatoes and smoke exposure and control group and following them all the way through the life cycle. So growth, development, processing, storage, resilience, and then doing economic analysis and how that impacts the broader economy of the state,” said Dr. Owen McDougal is Chair of the Boise State Chemistry Department and Director of The Food and Dairy Innovation Center.
The catalyst for the research came from McCain foods, they began to notice that potatoes didn’t seem to store well after intense wildfire years. The study will take smoke from a commercial smoker that will emulate wildfire smoke. It is then piped into potato plots where it is trapped by plastic. The daily treatment began in July and ended in August.
“We believe it may be species dependent. So, some varieties of potatoes are more susceptible to rangeland and forest fire smoke than others. And what we're hoping for is that growers will benefit from the study by having processors select contracts for varieties of potatoes that will be resistant to the influence of smoke,” McDougal said.
According to a news release from University of Idaho, many smoke components are suspected to affect potato crops. Smoke can worsen environmental conditions for potato growth -- like humidity and light exposure -- but some of the smoke may actually be good for plants due to carbon dioxide, the release said.
"Observations from industry started all of this. When we have had bad, smoky years, yields are down and processing quality is down. Our hypothesis is smoke exposure causes that," said Mike Thornton, a professor in U of I's Department of Plant Sciences.
Team members are keeping a close eye on how potatoes interact with the conditions.
“They have set up enclosures. They're doing smoke treatment and control groups. And then through that process, they're there monitoring the photosynthesis of the plants and the tumor development and size, both in smoke and control group potatoes,” McDougal said.
The work fits perfectly with The Food and Dairy Innovation Center, designed to look at real world problems in Idaho to find solutions to help Idahoans.
“Our goal behind that was to provide a research resource for industry. And having someone like Addie Waxman come to us from McCain Foods and say, hey, we have a problem, let's put together a team to do the research in order to get the data and come up with a fact inspired response to how to address this problem. To me is the most fascinating thing,” McDougal said.
The findings could help shape what varieties of potatoes are grown in the future here in Idaho.
“We believe it may be species dependent. So some varieties of potatoes are more susceptible to rangeland and forest fire smoke than others. And what we're hoping for is that growers will benefit from the study by having processors select contracts for varieties of potatoes that will be resistant to the influence of smoke,” McDougal said.
Researchers anticipate applying this experiment to other crops, like onions.
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