August 04, 2020

Meetings to consider problems with russet potato seed

PRESQUE ISLE — The Maine Department of Agriculture has scheduled two important meetings for Monday in Presque Isle to resolve an increasing spread of virus in certified russet seed while adequately supplying potato processors.

Members of the $150 million industry may decide to import russet seed from their Midwestern rivals rather than planting local seed with higher than the state-tolerated level of virus.

“Everyone in the industry, including the processors, are reluctant to raise the (state) tolerance levels, as they realize the problems that can occur,” John Logan, director of the MPB’s Quality Control Board said Sunday. “We’ve sacrificed to make the industry as good as it is and we won’t take lightly doing anything to put that in jeopardy.”

Members of the executive councils on seed, tablestock and processing potatoes will meet at 9:30 a.m. Monday at Keddy’s Motor Inn.

A follow-up meeting will be held at 1:30 p.m. with other growers, dealers and interested people.

Bernard W. Shaw, commissioner of agriculture, will talk about the results from the Florida seed test farm which showed higher than normal readings of mosaic, a potato virus Y, especially in russet varieties.

Several industry members lay the blame for the increase partly to Shaw’s action last year in raising the tolerance level from 5 percent to 7 percent to accommodate processors and their growers after readings showed a significant amount of seed did not qualify for planting at the lower tolerance level.

Unusually hot, dry weather and late aphid transmission also were said to have contributed to the virus increase.

Last week McCain Foods Inc.’s Easton asked for an extension of the waiver for the shepody variety, this time to include russet varieties.

John Bernier, the processor’s spokesman, told the Maine Potato Board that readings for 82 percent of the shepody seed and 65 percent of the russet seed McCain purchased for its growers to plant this spring were higher than 5 percent.

At that meeting growers expressed concern about long-term effects to their carefully cultivated seed markets.

Fred Flewelling, a seed grower from Crouseville, said the industry already was “paying the price in the high level of readings” by raising the seed tolerance last year.

“As bad as I’d hate to see seed come in to service our industry, to protect our industry, I would agree with it,’ Flewelling said. “We need to look at every option to keep the readings down.”

Processing grower Brian Campbell of Exeter reminded members that the waiver granted by Shaw was an emergency measure and not meant for regular use.

Members discussed the possibility of designating areas for production of seed, tablestock or processing to prevent spread of diseases from one variety to another. They said the problem was increased in Maine because growers “commingled” the three operations while some areas were able to segregate varieties and focused on fewer varieties or markets.

Vernon DeLong, executive director of the Agriculture Bargaining Council, said his group hesitated to give blanket approval to the 7 percent tolerance before studying supplies available at one-half point increments beyond the 5 percent level.

Members were reminded that while russet varieties grown in Western states had lower readings, several thousand acres had been rejected because of ring rot.

“Where do we draw the line?” asked MPB President Maylen Kenney of Mapleton, a tablestock grower. “If we let russets (have higher tolerance levels), what about round whites?”

One grower said the industry had worked hard to “clean up our seed and we had better be careful.”

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