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Western Innovator: Potato researcher thrives on questions

Mark Pavek, professor and potato specialist at Washington State University, at one of the research potato fields in Othello. (Courtesy: Matthew Weaver | Capital Press)

Ask a farmer why he or she uses a certain practice, and the reply might be: “Because that’s what we’ve always done.”

That’s not good enough for Mark Pavek, professor and potato specialist at Washington State University:

“Anything that we do, if I can’t find literature on previous research, then that’s a red flag that we need to do research on it..”

“We try to question every little practice that we do and then we try to refine that.”

For example, Pavek and his team found that the standard row width, 34 inches, wasn’t the most profitable. They recommended switching to 32 inches.

Growers, he added, might need different equipment or skinnier tires. Some are making enough money that they don’t care to switch, Pavek said. But as margins shrink, every practice is fair game.

Planting on a north-south orientation is best in the Northern Hemisphere, because it puts more sunlight on the plant, he said. Farmers should avoid planting on an east-west orientation, he said.

While Pavek is based in Pullman, most research is done on 20 acres at WSU’s research farm in Othello. Pavek’s priorities are variety development and agronomy of varieties.

The Tri-State Potato Breeding Project, which includes the University of Idaho, Oregon State University and WSU, averages a new variety each year.

Pavek :

“It’s got to make the grower money, it’s got to make everyone in the food and marketing chain money,”

“It’s definitely got to have the yield and quality.”

“It’s neat, I didn’t plan that, I couldn’t have planned that.”

“But it really meant a lot to my dad and means a lot to me, too.”

“It’s actually been a very fun crop to work with.”

“Also, it has a lot of problems. It keeps people like me in business, trying to figure out how to prevent problems in growers’ fields.”

Pavek’s father, Joe, was a potato geneticist for the USDA in Aberdeen, Idaho. Even though Joe, now 91, retired in 1999, a lot of his varieties were still being researched when his son joined WSU in 2004. It can take 20 years to release a variety, so father and son were both included as co-authors on variety release articles with the rest of the team.

Pavek originally intended to pursue a different path, but he found potato research “a bit addictive.” Breeders work to develop new varieties that have natural resistance to disease and pests and use fewer inputs.

Pavek’s team field-tests them to see if they’ll meet the needs of farmers and find problems. They conduct a quality check in a commercial seed trial using samples supplied by farmers.

Pavek and his team evaluate each plant, providing an immediate reading of seed quality, said Chris Voigt, executive director of the Washington Potato Commission in Moses Lake.Pavek is also testing the “gazillion” products that claim to improve yield or quality from smaller companies that can’t provide much data, Voigt said.

Chris Voigt:

“There’s a salesman that will come on your farm every day,”

“Mark is actually taking a lot of those products and testing them to see if they’re going to do what they say they’re going to do.”

“We like people to ask us questions, because if we can’t answer it, we’re going to do the research.”

Pavek brings a practical approach to research and extension, said Andy Jensen, manager of the Northwest Potato Consortium, based in Lakeview, Ore.

Andy Jensen:

“He wants to be able to produce results that growers can use,”

“He is willing to tackle questions that many people wouldn’t think to tackle.”

Voigt considers Pavek one of the “go-to guys” for potato questions. Without him, “it would be a lot of gambling and guesswork,” Voigt said. Pavek said he includes economic value to the grower in every study. He wants to keep growers competitive.