Say it Ain’t So — Yukon Golds are Slipping Away?

Potato research technician Vanessa Currie at Elora last fall. Photo by Nicholas Murphy.

A good story can be told about potato production in Canada. It rose more than 4.5 per cent in 2015 over the previous year. Half of the new production came from Manitoba, with about another third coming from Quebec.

That production increase didn’t hurt McCain Foods Canada’s decision in January to expand its Carberry, Manitoba operation, with $380,000 worth of help from the governments of Canada and Manitoba. The expansion will be mainly for potatoes grown for French fries.

Researchers nationwide look to develop new varieties that will give growers an edge. For example, at the University of Guelph, 120 new lines are being tested at any one time.

Currently, that includes 10 lines dedicated to potatoes that store a little longer and mature a little sooner.

University of Guelph potato researcher Alan Sullivan and graduate student Stephanie Bach, field testing a potato variety called Roko. Photo courtesy of Alan Sullivan.

Potato researcher Alan Sullivan and graduate student Stephanie Bach, field testing a potato variety called Roko. | Photo courtesy of Alan Sullivan.

Potato program director Prof. Alan Sullivan and technician Vanessa Currie are trying to help growers capitalize on the gap between the old crop that’s in storage, and the new crop coming off the field. They’re supported from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, and the federal Growing Forward 2 program.

That drive for new varieties led to the first Canadian-bred variety to be marketed with its name on the packaging 30 years ago, the Yukon Gold. It’s a line officially developed back in 1966 at the University of Guelph by potato breeder Gary Johnston.

After years of testing, Yukon Golds hit the market in 1980. They went on to become iconic — and not just in Guelph, or even Canada. For example, US President Bill Clinton served them at a White House dinner, erroneously thinking they were from northern USA (they’re not).

Like others, he flocked to them fork in hand because of their superb nutty taste and distinct yellow colour that reminded many people of butter.

In fact, so regaled are Yukon Golds they that they finished in the top five in last fall’s popularity poll of game-changing inventions from Ontario universities, called Research Matters.

So you’d think all that would mean Yukon Golds would be plentiful on store shelves.

But, these days, they can be hard to find. Despite their fame, Yukon Golds comprise less than five per cent of the 36,000 acres of potatoes grown in the province.

Yukon Gold potatoes. | Photo by Nicholas Murphy.

Yukon Gold potatoes. | Photo by Nicholas Murphy.

Despite their good taste – and the positive health attributes of all potatoes, particularly potassium and Vitamin C – it turns out Yukon Golds struggle on other fronts. They are highly susceptible to a number of diseases and defects, including a potato virus called PVY-NTN, and a condition known as hollow heart.

“Yukon Golds are not a popular variety with potato growers,” says Currie, who worked briefly with fabled breeder Johnston.

“They’re still grown by some farmers because their customers specifically request it, but given the choice, most growers find other yellow varieties easier to produce and profit from,” she says. “That’s a shame, because Yukon Gold is a good cooking potato for both boiling and baking, but growers need high yields of perfect potatoes to make money these days.”

Indeed, the table potato market is economically flat. The best money in potatoes comes from those varieties that are sold to companies like Frito Lay in Cambridge for chips. In fact, about half of the potatoes grown in Ontario go to that market. If you’re a local food fan, you can get your fill by eating Frito Lay chips, because the company almost exclusively uses Canadian potatoes for the Canadian market.

So keep an eye for Yukon Golds. Maybe someday something will take their place. But for now they retain the title of Canada’s most famous spud.

 

Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as @theurbancowboy

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