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SunRain brings new and improved potato varieties to Potandon, other producers

Bringing to market new flavorful and unique potato varieties is a major focus of Idaho Falls, ID-based Potandon Produce LLC, and in pursuit of that objective, the company formed a subsidiary, SunRain Varieties LLC, also in Idaho Falls, “to do our seed production and hold all our varieties and also do grower seed for our production farms,” according to Melvin Davenport, president of SunRain and co-chief executive officer of Potandon.

Since its founding, SunRain has broadened its scope and now makes many of its potato varieties available to other producers as well.

In August, The Produce News attended an open house at SunRain at which more than 60 of the company’s potato varieties were on exhibit, and toured the facility in the company of Aaron Derbidge, business manager.

02--IdPot-SunRainMelvin Davenport and Aaron Derbidge at a SunRain open house featuring displays of more than 60 SunRain potato cultivars.Then and in a subsequent phone interview, Derbidge talked about what is involved in selecting and breeding new potato varieties and bringing them to the point of commercial seed production.

Currently, SunRain has 73 different potato cultivars available for commercial planting, including potatoes with rich variations in size, shape, color and flavor. While the mix includes some improved russet varieties, and the search for yet better russets continues, “our focus has been on the varietal side, not the russet side,” Derbidge said. In particular, it has been on “yellow-skin, yellow-flesh potatoes, red-skin yellow-flesh potatoes and specialty potatoes like purples. We have one out there that is yellow-skin, yellow-flesh, but has purple eyes.”

SunRain has recently gotten into the business of breeding new potato varieties, but the breeding program is still in its infancy and as with all breeding programs, it is a long, slow process. Derbidge expects that realistically it will probably be 10 years “before we find something viable.”

Meanwhile, the company continues to do what it has done from its inception, search ing the world for the best available potato varieties, bringing those to the Idaho Falls facility, growing them out and testing them to determine which ones do well in North America and then developing seed potatoes for commercial planting.

“We actually trial all 73 varieties in 10 different states. That way, we can figure out which varieties are best where,” Derbridge said.

More than half of them do well in Idaho, however, including selections from all of the different potato types SunRain offers. That is why Idaho excels as a potato-growing state. A grower could find a variety suitable for Idaho in “any category we have the answer for,” he said. “Idaho is pretty unique in the fact that we grow potatoes pretty darn well here.”

In SunRain’s breeding program, the process begins by selecting two different cultivars with desirable varieties and cross-breeding them in hope of getting something with the most desirable characteristics of both. As an example, one variety may be virus-resistant but not have an attractive tuber, and another may produce an attractive potato but be susceptible to virus. “We will cross those,” harvest the seeds, plant them and examine the tubers the plants produce in hope that “out of the progeny of that we will get something that has both shelf appeal and disease resistance,” Derbidge said. It takes many thousands of such trials to find a potato with all of the desired characteristics.

When such a potato is found, retaining those characteristics is achieved through vegetative propagation in order to keep the DNA constant.

Among the 73 potato cultivars currently available from SunRain are such things as Agata, a yellow-flesh, yellow-skin potato and Rosata, a yellow-flesh potato with a red skin, “remarkable yields and fantastic taste,” Derbidge said. Another is Smiling Rose, “a fantastic specialty — a small creamer-type with yellow eyes, pink skin and yellow flesh.” Another has yellow skin and flesh but purple eyes. Still others have variegated skin color.

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