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How does wildfire smoke affect potatoes? Idaho researchers are studying it.

Mike Thornton, center, University of Idaho plant sciences professor pipes smoke into covered potato plots, simulating wildfire smoke with Deron Beck, left, U of I research associate.
University of Idaho
Mike Thornton (center), University of Idaho plant sciences professor, pipes smoke into covered potato plots, simulating wildfire smoke with Deron Beck (left), a research associate.

Wildfire smoke blanketing the West might not only be affecting people and animals, but also crops grown underground like potatoes. That’s the focus of a research project being conducted by the University of Idaho and Boise State University.

It started with a particularly bad smoke season a few years ago. Employees at McCain Foods, the world’s largest producer of frozen potato products, noticed the potatoes coming to its Burley plant were smaller and less healthy. Harvest had to be pushed back to give them more time to grow.

The company reached out to researchers at Idaho universities like Mike Thornton, a University of Idaho professor of plant sciences, and Owen McDougal, the chair of the Boise State chemistry department.

“Observations from industry started all of this. When we have had bad, smoky years, yields are down and processing quality is down. Our hypothesis is smoke exposure causes that,” Thornton said.

One indication of that increased stress is higher simple sugar content in the potatoes.

“You get more browning during frying and the more browning you get, the color grade is reduced. And you get a lot more waste, so a lot more potatoes that are unusable within the high-grade market,” McDougal said.

A new two-year study by the Idaho universities aims to pinpoint exactly which chemicals in potatoes change due to smoke exposure, and whether certain varieties hold up better than others.

The project is funded with $125,000 from the federal Speciality Crop Block Grant Program through the Idaho State Department of Agriculture.

In a University of Idaho extension laboratory in Parma this summer, three potato varieties – Russet Burbank, Clearwater and Alturas – were trapped under plastic covers while smoke from burning pine needles, sagebrush and wood was piped in. Control plants were not exposed to the smoke.

The potatoes will be harvested soon and sent to the lab run by McDougal at the new Boise State Food and Dairy Innovation Center for analysis. He’ll also run tests once the potatoes have been in storage for six months and again once they’re turned into frozen french fries.

McDougal said that the results could influence which varieties farmers choose to grow in the number one potato-producing state.

“As we see more smoke year after year, more fires in the West, we can breed potatoes that are more resilient and resistant to the impact and effect of smoke,” he said.

Results should be released after the next growing season.

In a University of Idaho report released earlier this year on how climate change will affect the state’s economy, researchers found the potato season could be shortened due to weather changes or water availability, and fewer cool days and nights could also affect the crops' ability to keep fresh in storage.

Additional research is being conducted on how wildfire smoke affects onion crops and milk production.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

Copyright 2022 Boise State Public Radio

As the south-central Idaho reporter, I cover the Magic and Wood River valleys. I also enjoy writing about issues related to health and the environment.

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