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Hancock Agriculture Research Facility sets standard for potato research

by Christina DiMartino | September 28, 2011
Duane Maatz, executive director of the Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association.

The Hancock Research Station in Hancock, WI, currently supports the research and outreach necessary to develop and evaluate cropping systems and components.

Its goals include supporting the extension of research at both the station and surrounding lands, as well as supporting component- and system-research programs with horticultural, agronomic and forest crops.

In 1916, the station began research to help livestock farmers on the droughty sands of Wisconsin. Research efforts for the next 20 years were directed toward dairy feeding, pasture utilization, soil-fertility management and studies on shelterbelt planting for wind-erosion control.

Irrigation possibilities and aluminum-pipe availability in the late 1940s brought renewed hope to those in the area. It also redirected the college’s research efforts, and studies began to reveal multi-fold increases in crop productivity. Seventy acres were added to the station in 1962 to aid research, and an adjacent 120 acres were acquired in 1971.

With funds raised from its membership and other industry organizations, the Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association in Antigo, WI, built a new research facility on the site several years ago. It is now in the process of formally gifting it to the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“The facility was made possible largely by contributions from industry organizations, growers and associate industry corporations,” explained Duane Maatz, executive director of the Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association. “It was budgeted over the last five years for a total price of about 2.2 million dollars.”

The formal transfer of ownership was scheduled for Sept. 26. The state and the university will use it for research, and the Association will continue to participate in the research conducted on behalf of growers in the state.

“We will also continue to support it in maintenance and repair funding as needed,” said Mr. Maatz. “We’re very excited about the work that is being done there.”

At this time of year, as Wisconsin potatoes are being harvested, different sugar-content tests are being done. As the storage season approaches, potatoes will be put under different tests to determine storage factors.

“The large slate of lockers and storage rooms at the facility enables researchers to conduct numerous tests at all times,” said Mr. Maatz. “Sprout-inhibitor tests will determine how new varieties store. We are learning more about how potatoes work out of the field, and then how they perform at 30, 60 and 90 days, and so on. We’re adding sensors that will work on air quality, which will tell us what we need to do to make improvements. Other vegetables are also stored and tested at the facility, so many crops will benefit from the research.”

New potato varieties are part of the Association’s focus. Mr. Maatz said that researchers are learning more about color and sugar qualities as well as long-term storability.

“This information will help us determine if we want to continue to invest in a new variety or stop investing in it,” he said. “As a result, we will be more efficient in our breeding program. Given crop-year situations, we can make suggestions to growers on what they can do to help them in their storage processes. A big concern in storage is getting the potatoes to sleep so they maintain their market traits throughout the storage process, as well as how to treat the potatoes when they’re in the bin.”

Mary LeMere is the interim superintendent of the Hancock Agriculture Research Facility. She said that the facility runs the gambit on research.

“There are 12 to 15 researchers from the University of Wisconsin working in the facility on an annual basis,” she said. “One trial we’re conducting is the ‘Wisconsin Potato Variety Advanced Selection Trial.’ This year we have about 150 potato varieties that were grown in the field and put into storage. We’ll be trialing them throughout the year to determine their quality and what uses they are best suited to.”

Local-grower support is another key function of the facility. Ms. LeMere said that the growers help to fund the building, and the research performed at the facility helps them with growing and storage issues.

“We take samples of the stored potatoes and make fries and chips using the same methods used by major processors to see how they will perform,” she explained. “We also test for today’s Brix level and project how the Brix will hold over a period of time. Major processors, such as McCain Foods and Frito-Lay, cooperate with us and request research studies. Because we’re a not-for-profit organization, we provide the services at our cost. And we engage in third-party analysis for insurance purposes.

“We think it’s one of the most-advanced potato-research facilities in the world,” Ms. LeMere continued. “Many professionals from around the world come to tour the facility. We’ve had groups from India, China, Canada, Israel, Russia and other countries, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see similar facilities being build in other countries in the future.”

The Hancock Research Station in Hancock, WI.