Oregon struggles to hold potato-growing prominence

As if general economic conditions aren't hard enough on Oregon's agriculture, at least one sector faces a grueling race with East and Midwest competitors. The crop in question is potatoes, but the stakes are far from small.

Oregon, with Washington and Idaho, has long led the field in providing most of the potatoes for the national processing markets. But while it is still a front-runner in production and yield, the pack is moving closer. In more than a dozen potato-breeding centers in the East and Midwest, researchers are working feverishly to develop a variety that can compete with the Northwest's famous Russet Burbank for yield, toughness, storage potential, and suitability for processing. If they find one, Oregon and other Northwest states are in trouble, for they can't change the fact that the large centers of population and demand for processed potatoes are in the East and Midwest. Transportation costs could cut them off in the home stretch.

In Oregon the potato carries by far the largest single payroll - $35.4 million in 1981 - of any agricultural commodity. It is the fourth-most-valuable commodity in gross farm sales - $87.8 million in 1981.

Al Mosely, an Oregon State University (OSU) crop scientist, has been watching the potato race for some time. While the enormous threat to the industry is real - ''there are some new russets on the drawing boards back there now that are more attractive than our Burbank,'' he says - he is confident that the increasingly aggressive approach of the Oregon and Northwest potato industries will carry the day.

''Our greatest advantage is that the Columbia Basin has the highest yield for potatoes in the country, the very best growing conditions,'' he says. ''And if we can maintain our yields and research for improved quality, there'll be no competition with Oregon.''

What has brought the threat painfully home to growers and researchers is that several of the big processors are opening new processing plants in the Midwest. Ore-Ida, of Ontario, Ore., has recently opened a plant in Plover, Wis.; J. R. Simplot has acquired a plant in Grand Forks, N. D. Tom Brownlee, Simplot's administrative manager in Hermiston, Ore., says the reason is ''solely transportation costs. The difference in price for shipping goods east from North Dakota compared with Oregon represents a dramatic savings for us.''

The rising costs of transportation have hit at a time when yields are falling off in the Columbia Basin, where 60 percent of Oregon's potatoes are grown. Several years ago, total potato acreage was 68,000 to 70,000 acres; in 1982, it was 54,000. High on the list of reasons for the decline is the failure of many of the corporate farms whose capital helped open the Columbia Basin to potato growing just over a decade ago. Many of those farms were run inefficiently by people with no potato-growing experience, according to Mr. Mosely. There was also a buildup of disease in the soil and the creation of soil hardpans and nutrient imbalances caused by fertilizer use.

The other serious problem the potato industry faces is its almost total reliance on the one Russet Burbank variety. It has ruled the processing markets for decades now, but still has not conquered its susceptibility to verticillium wilt, which is expensive to treat and can reduce yields by as much as 25 percent. It also suffers from net necrosis, which occurs in storage, and various physiological problems that differ with the seasons.

If all that is not enough, there are 12 to 15 breeding programs in the East and Midwest whose drawings boards could carry the secret to a wilt-resistant, high-yield variety. By contrast the Northwest, which produces 25 percent of the US potato crop, has just two breeding programs.

Against this array of negative factors, the Russet Burbank's future looks threatened indeed.

But Oregon is not bowing out of the race. With the Washington and Idaho commissions, the Oregon Potato Commission is developing a revised Northwest breeding program. Under this plan, the breeding station at Aberdeen, Idaho, will produce more crosses specifically suited to Oregon's growing conditions and especially to the long growing season of the Columbia Basin.

''If we could find a variety with the Burbank's innate yielding and processing potential that was resistant to the verticillium wilt, you can see what that would do for the Columbia Basin,'' says Mr. Mosely, who will be directing the new breeding efforts from his OSU office in Corvallis.

Varietal development is an expensive process, requiring careful record keeping and selection, many hands, and time. Where will the money come from?

Joe Spiruta, head of the Oregon Potato Commission, says funds will come from the three Northwest potato commissions. The financing committee is also hoping for money from the Federal Agricultural Research Service, he says, and from processors and chemical companies - in short, from anyone with a stake in the industry.

Through all these trials, the processors, even the ones opening new plants in the Midwest, remain fiercely loyal to the Oregon and Northwest growers. In addition, the Oregon industry is actively courting new markets around the Pacific Rim of Asia.

In this sphere, Oregon has several advantages. The Port of Portland lies on the Columbia River, and there are freeways all the way from Columbia Basin potato fields to Portland. The Oregon commission has funded overseas missions to promote consumption of processed potatoes, with marked success in Japan. It is concentrating now on the Philippines; next will be Hong Kong and Singapore.

So while the race will be tough, Oregon has some significant roadside advantages: more and better research with enthusiastic support of growers, the aggressive approach of the state potato commission, and the strong backing of processing firms in the face of rising transport costs and other changing economic conditions.

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