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‘A passion for potatoes’: Pioneering Colorado potato breeder Dave Holm retires

By Anna Gerber, Director of Communications, Colorado State University College of Agricultural Sciences

Dave Holm was destined to work with potatoes. He was raised on a potato farm in southeast Idaho, where his dad and grandfather instilled in him a love of one of the world’s most important crops. The first in his family to go to college, he studied plant science during his undergraduate and graduate studies at the University of Idaho as he narrowed his focus to potato breeding and physiology.

“My career started when I was born,” Holm says. “My dad was a big supporter of education. I also had a good seventh-grade science teacher who told us we needed to start thinking about what we wanted to do in life, and I knew what I wanted to do, generally, was to work with plants.”

This June, Holm will retire after 43 years of service to Colorado State University’s San Luis Valley Research Center and Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture. After graduating with a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in 1977, Holm and his wife, Vonda, packed a small trailer and moved to Colorado’s San Luis Valley, where the ideal climate and near-constant sunshine help make for what is now the second largest fresh potato growing region in the United States.

Passion for potatoes

Holm’s passion for potatoes is driven by many childhood memories on his family farm, and his interest extends to the complexities of the tubers, as well as their nutritional properties.

“Potatoes have many specific health properties that we have discovered and enhanced over the years, and they offer a lot in terms of what consumers like,” said Holm. “They are generally easy to grow, but can be challenging; grow in a lot of places around the world; and there is a lot of industry built up around potatoes, including growing, storage, marketing and processing into other foods.”

In 1978, Holm started at the SLVRC as an assistant professor focused on physiology and potato management. He took over as project leader for the Colorado Potato Breeding and Selection Program in 1982, focusing on developing new potato cultivars through traditional hybridization methods. Holm served as superintendent of the research center from 1983-1997, and was promoted to associate professor in 1992, and ultimately, full professor in 1996.

Under Holm’s leadership, 33 potato cultivars have been released by the breeding program, and he has cooperated with other universities and entities on the release of an additional 21.

His potato cultivars are well known and adopted by producers, and many have significantly reduced nitrogen and fungicide input requirements. His work grew to include plant variety protection on potato cultivars and developing more materials with resistance to Potato virus Y, one of the most prevalent plant viruses affecting potato production.

Today, many of Holm’s cultivars are still doing well, though he has seen firsthand the ups and downs of the potato industry.

“We don’t know how the market is going to evolve over the years based on consumer preference, and sometimes there are conflicts with acceptance of the products we have developed. We try to optimize the probability of success,” Holm says. “The thing that gives me the most personal satisfaction is taking potatoes in various directions to meet the needs of the potato industry, and the impact that I have had on the ag industry in Colorado and around the world.”

Impact on industry, San Luis Valley

Through his service to his profession and his community, Holm has made a significant impact on the San Luis Valley. For the past 26 years, he has been volunteering with the San Luis Valley Regional Science Fair, many years as the board president, and has served 25 years on the Colorado Science and Engineering Fair board of directors, including two years as president.  He regularly guides kids with projects to the annual SLVRSF and the CSEF at CSU in Fort Collins. He has also mentored local students at the research center, as well as graduate students and early career professionals. During that time, he and Vonda also raised two children, who also participated in the science fair and went on to study at CSU before starting careers and families of their own.

“Dr. Holm’s career impacts are remarkable in their significance to the potato industry, the San Luis Valley community and Colorado State University,” said James Pritchett, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences and director of the Colorado Agricultural Experiment Station. “Dave is the epitome of a land-grant scientist, weaving the discovery of knowledge, active engagement, and community service for everyone’s benefit. His selfless legacy is a testament for which we are all grateful.”

After more than four decades of working full time, Holm is looking forward to spending two weeks in Alaska this summer with his family before settling into a new routine. He will remain at the SLVRC in a part-time capacity to ensure a smooth transition and to mentor his successor. He hopes to continue mentoring graduate students and collaborating on regional projects related to evaluating potatoes, and to maintain relationships with people and industry connections around the world.

Though Holm’s career is coming to an end, one thing is for sure – he will always have potatoes. “When I was an undergraduate at the University of Idaho, I always enjoyed the rare treat of walking down the hall when the cooler door was open – the aroma and the smell of the potatoes was like going home,” he said. “When you work with a crop for so long, it just kind of gets in your blood.”

Author:
Anna Gerber, Director of Communications
Colorado State University College of Agricultural Sciences

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