One thing you should know about Dr. Gregory Porter — the man behind the University of Maine’s well-regarded potato-breeding program — is that he is not just a researcher of potatoes, he is also a fan.
“Oh, I love ’em,” Porter said recently, during a break from working the 35 acres of potato fields he oversees at the Aroostook Research Farm in Presque Isle, Maine. “I eat ’em all the time. Never get sick of ’em. I like ’em baked, like ’em roasted, like ’em scalloped . . . ”
He likes ’em so much, in fact, that — in a development that recently drew national notice — he went ahead and created a brand new one.
Dubbed the pinto gold for its yellow flesh and distinctive patchy skin pattern, the gourmet specialty potato introduced last month by the university is said to be particularly good for roasting but versatile enough to be boiled, baked, or pan-fried.
“Pretty, unique, and the tastiest roasting potatoes you could ever have,” is how Porter described them in a university release announcing the new variety.
That the tried-and-true potato might be in need of revamping will probably come as a surprise to those who for years have quietly subsisted on the same handful of tuber options. Is it really possible to improve upon a product that has been farmed, cultivated, and enjoyed by the human species since approximately 8,000 BC?
The answer, apparently, is yes. With the potato serving as the country’s largest vegetable crop, according to the US Department of Agriculture, no shortage of time and money has been devoted to tinkering with genetic traits in a hunt for the perfect potato.
Currently, there are thousands of known variants, and about a dozen public breeding programs are operating across the country, churning out more.
And within this world, Porter has emerged as something of a potato whisperer.
Raised on a potato farm in Washburn, Maine, the 60-year-old took over the University of Maine’s potato breeding program in 2007 and quickly got to work. Since 2014, his program has introduced four potato varieties; in addition to the pinto gold, there were the Easton and the Sebec, both released in 2014, followed in 2015 by the Caribou russet.
In a line of work where failure is the norm and progress is typically measured in years, if not decades, this is no small thing.
As John Keeling, CEO of the National Potato Council —
Indeed, creating a potato worthy of bringing to market can be a Herculean task.
It requires crossing existing varieties and then, in a long process involving many successive harvests, planting and replanting seed potatoes from only the best resulting varieties. The result must prove storable, pest-resistant, and unique and attractive enough to certain markets — producers of french fries and potato chips, for instance — to warrant their business.
In the case of the pinto gold, the journey began 10 years ago, when the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service’s potato-breeding program sent some unused plant material to the Maine program from a cross-pollination they’d conducted a couple years earlier, to see if it might be conducive to the Northeastern climate.
At the time, Porter admitted, he and his colleagues did not know what they had on their hands. The potato-breeding industry is a notoriously fickle and slow-moving one. A breeder might start with tens of thousands of potential potato types, said Don Flannery, executive director of the Maine Potato Board, and “at the end of 12 years, if you’ve got one or two out of that, you’ve done really well.”
Much of potato breeding, those familiar with it say, is genetic science, combined with a good understanding of the potato market and what stakeholders are looking for.
But it’s also about feel. And Porter’s feeling, as he watched the evolution of the pinto gold though the first few experimental harvests, was that it showed a lot of promise.
It had a nice, creamy flesh and slight sweetness. It took well to the cooler climate of northern Maine. It showed “good to moderate” resistance to bruising.
It performed well in research and marketing trials, including when the school delivered samples to organic growers and road-side vegetable hawkers in 2012, in an effort to determine whether farmers and consumers would take to the potato.
“They did,” Porter said, “and we just kept moving forward.”
Now that the potato has been officially introduced, is Porter bound for spud superstardom? Endless riches?
In a recent telephone interview, Porter did not seem to be anticipating any kind of financial windfall as a result of the potato; unlike past varieties released by Porter’s program, the school chose not to release the potato under something called “plant variety protection,” which would have ensured intellectual property rights and entitlement to a portion of any profits.
(The paperwork is expensive, and without protection more small-scale growers are likely to give it a try.)
Nor, for that matter, did he seem all that interested in discussing one particular potato variety when there were so many others in need of his attention. About 30 minutes into the conversation, he was clearly itching to get back to his spuds, and after a couple half-hearted attempts to sign off, he finally put his foot down.
“That better be it,” he said, before saying goodbye and heading back out into the fields, in search of the next great potato.Dugan Arnett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @duganarnett.