Each time a bag of potato chips is opened in the United States, there is a one in four chance that it’s filled with Michigan-grown potatoes. Michigan is the largest producer of potatoes grown for the potato chip industry in the US, and more than 70% of the state’s annual 1.7 billion pounds of potatoes go toward chip production.
The booming industry has not come about by accident or coincidence. A concerted effort made by industry stakeholders, spearheaded by Michigan State University Extension and MSU AgBioResearch, and coordinated by the Michigan Potato Industry Commission, has built a partnership that is growing the industry.
Finding the best spuds
Before potatoes get turned into chips, a lot of work is done to pick the best varieties for the job. Chris Long, MSU Extension potato specialist, leads the Potato Outreach Program, which supports potato growers by conducting on-farm research and demonstration trials on all aspects of potato production.
Long works with local and national breeding programs to identify superior varieties by first testing them on farms and then taking the top performers to processors.
“To me, the relationship is like the spokes of a wheel,” Long says about the Potato Outreach Program. “The MPIC is a tremendous funder of my research, but they also set priorities and the bull’s eye for what we are trying to accomplish. AgBioResearch provides the infrastructure, and I am like a bridge builder between these research priorities, researchers at MSU and the growers.”
MSU and the potato commission work together to promote and support the state’s potato industry. MPIC provides funding for research and specialist positions at MSU and also works with stakeholder groups to generate funding through programs such as Project GREEEN.
Without the research and outreach coming out of MSU, the state’s potato industry could be 20 years behind from where it is now, says Kelly Turner, MPIC executive director.
“The research really is what has moved Michigan forward and put us on the map in the potato industry nationwide,” Turner says. “MSU is nationally recognized for the work that they do. When talking to some of our largest growers, they have placed their success squarely on the shoulders of the research that’s been done at MSU.”
Discussing the particulars of potatoes
MPIC also facilitates conversation and cooperation among all stakeholders in the industry.
“What MPIC really does is bring everybody together, from breeders to seed developers to processors to growers. They put us all in a room together, and we have really good conversations about what we need,” says Phil Gusmano, vice president at Better Made Snack Foods.
“MSU will come in and say, ‘These are the varieties we have up and coming, and these are their attributes.’ Then we talk about what works and what doesn’t from the production side. When breeders get to listen to what the end users want, a consciousness is developed of our production needs and the end consumer needs.”
Supporting Michigan’s family growers
Sklarcyzk Seed Farm in Johannesburg, Michigan, owned and operated by Ben and Alison Sklarcyzk, has been working with MSU through Potato Breeding and Genetics Program Director David Douches for decades. Ben’s parents, Don and Mary Kay, started working with MSU in the early 1990s, developing potato varieties through research and testing on their farm.
Read the full story on the Michigan State University website
Photo: Ben and Alison Sklarcyzk own and operate Sklarcyzk Seed Farm. The family farm has worked with MSU researchers for decades, developing potato varieties through research and testing on their farm.