PULLMAN, Wash. – When it comes to potatoes, french fries are the big outlet for Columbia Basin farmers. And when it comes to selling french fries, McDonald’s is the holy grail.
So for Washington State University potato researchers Rick Knowles and Mark Pavek, having a new variety chosen by McDonald’s is a big deal. In September, the worldwide fast-food chain chose two relatively new varieties developed in part by WSU researchers.
“McDonald’s has expert tasters, kind of like with fine wine,” said horticulture professor Knowles. “Their gold standard potato for french fries is a Russet Burbank, which makes a great fry but is really inefficient from a production standpoint.”
To develop varieties that are more efficient, stress tolerant and sustainable, WSU researchers work with colleagues from the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS), Oregon State University and the University of Idaho through the Northwest Potato Variety Development Program, commonly called the Tri-State Program.
WSU in on four of seven accepted varieties
“Burbank has disease issues and requires high soil fertility and water,” said Pavek, an associate professor and potato specialist in the Department of Horticulture. “And it has a lower yield of the highest-grade tubers because it’s susceptible to so many stress-related disorders.
“We need something to replace it that still makes fries McDonald’s will accept,” he said.
A new variety can take 10-15 years to come to market from the time plants are first cross-pollinated, making it difficult to quickly replace a reliable yet inefficient potato. So when McDonald’s officially accepted the Clearwater Russet and Blazer Russet, everyone in the Tri-State Program rejoiced.
“These are the first two varieties McDonald’s has added from our program since 2000,” Knowles said. “And they only have seven varieties on their list now, four of which were developed by the Tri-State Program. They’re very selective.”
33 percent higher protein
Since the announcement, Knowles said, the potato industry has ramped up production of seed for the two new russets because demand always increases when McDonald’s, the largest buyer of potatoes in the world, accepts a new variety.
The increase in production will help the Tri-State breeding program, which earns royalties on varieties it develop.
“Those royalties, split among the three universities and the USDA-ARS, will allow us to keep developing newer and even more efficient and nutritious varieties,” Knowles said.
And the Clearwater Russet comes with an unexpected, though nutritious, side effect: 33 percent higher protein concentration than Burbank.
“Potatoes are already very nutritious, with high levels of vitamin C and a good balance of amino acids,” Pavek said. “But Clearwater Russets are even better. It’s a nice little add-on to an already great potato.”