An invitation to join in potato variety breeding

The following is an initiative by Alan Romans. Some of you will have met him at East Anglia Potato Day, and he wrote the booklets that are a Guide to Potato Varieties. Fewer will be aware that he was the driving force behind all today's Potato Days. Over 20 years ago he put enormous enthusiasm into providing a huge range of choice of varieties and the parallel choice of seed tubers organically grown.

Now here is the plan:

The lost garden skill –

Potato Breeding

Could you be a next generation Sarpo breeder? Gardeners leave the production of new potato varieties to the scientific “experts.”  Yet before 1930 all varieties were produced by gardeners or farmers using what facilities they had. To this day nearly all European varieties are produced by “hobby” breeders – farmers or growers with an association with one of the large continental potato companies or co-ops. 

The Sarpo varieties Mira and Axona are the most blight resistant varieties we know. They have many garden-friendly characteristics – virus resistance, weed suppressing foliage, high food value, continual tuber growth through the season and long dormancy. They are not commercially successful because:

  •  the tubers can grow very long with a twist, and are prone to having green ends,
  •  they can have extremely high starch levels at the end of the growing season,
  •  when over-mature they are often hollow with blackening,
  •  they have poor skin colour and
  •  they have strong stolons which are often still attached after harvesting.
  •  The weed suppressing foliage is slow to start, ironically leading to early weed problems and
  •  at the end of the season the foliage is unwilling to die back and is difficult to clear for harvest.
Sarpo Mira and Axona produce flowers readily and have strong male and female fertility. They make good mums and dads! Time to move on and breed the next generation with top blight resistance. The “experts” are engaged elsewhere and there is room for a group of British hobby breeders to cross the Sarpos with other varieties to seek a generally acceptable tuber with top virus and blight resistance.

There is a small amount of technical advice available from the Sarvari Trust in North Wales but it would be down to group members to make use of their own facilities – garden/ allotment space, tools, pots, perhaps a greenhouse or polytunnel. Nimble fingers help.  Members could specialize in crossing to produce seed, raising seedlings and selecting potentially useful varieties from the seedlings, or trialing the potentially useful varieties or go for the lot.

A meeting is planned by the Sarvari Trust in North Wales in March to discuss what is involved and what relationship is possible between them and hobby breeders. For the moment we want to gather details of anyone interested.

Alan Romans

East Anglia Potato Day will support this idea. On Potato Day we will collect names of those who are interested. Otherwise you can contact us on-line. We will need:

Your Name    Your Facilities   Your Skills   Your email address