Michigan is top tuber state for potato chip industry

MSU research and outreach is credited for much of the state's chipping industry success.

MSU Extension potato specialist Chris Long examines potatoes as part of his potato breeding trial.
MSU Extension potato specialist Chris Long examines potatoes as part of his potato breeding trial. Long leads the Potato Outreach Program and is working to identify superior potato varieties for the potato chip industry.

Each time a bag of potato chips is opened in the United States, there is a 1 in 4 chance that it’s filled with Michigan-grown potatoes.

Michigan is the largest producer of potatoes grown for the potato chip business. More than 70 percent of the state’s annual 1.7 billion pounds of potatoes go toward chip production.

The booming industry has not come by accident or coincidence. A concerted effort made by industry stakeholders, spearheaded by Michigan State University (MSU) Extension and MSU AgBioResearch, and coordinated by the Michigan Potato Industry Commission (MPIC), has built a partnership that works together to grow the industry.

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 breeding programs locally and around the nation to identify superior varieties by first testing them on farms and then taking the top performers to processors to work with.

“To me, the relationship is like the spokes of a wheel,” Long said 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 MPIC work hand-in-hand 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 as much as 20 years behind where it currently is, said 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 said. “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.”

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,” said 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.”

When growers and processors work together through MPIC, each stakeholder gains a greater sense of working for the good of the entire industry, Turner said.

“We do a chip processing tour for our members where we take growers to all sorts of processors every other year. That way, the processors can show off their facilities, they can meet new growers, and they can build those relationships. And sometimes those turn into new contracts for one or the other,” Turner said. “We also take the chip processing folks out to visit the farmers so they can see where the potatoes are grown and see the atmosphere and the culture at each of those farms.”

Sklarcyzk Seed Farm, 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.

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.

Douches and MSU remain a fixture at Sklarcyzk Seed Farm, which has grown to generate as many as 6 million mini tubers each year. Sklarcyzk Seed Farm’s hydroponically produced mini tubers are shipped throughout the country, as well as to Canada, Chile, Thailand, Brazil and the Middle East.

“I think everyone within MSU and the potato industry really works well together to improve the industry,” said Alison, an MSU animal science alumnae. “The MSU team is open to assist us and provide us with material, but they also do a lot of DNA testing to confirm the purity and integrity of our varieties for our customers.”

MSU’s potato breeding program provides the seed farm with varieties that have allowed the Sklarcyzks to expand their production and customer base. But the relationship is mutually beneficial.

“When Dr. Douches got to Michigan State, we started working together and growing some of his varieties. So, he would do the breeding, and our operation then would receive the plant material, produce the mini-tubers to then send back to him,” said Ben, a 2003 MSU graduate in agribusiness. “As the years progressed, MSU started to do more of those processes in-house, so we worked with them and helped them establish their own greenhouse facility.”

Better Made Snack Foods, based in Detroit, has built its success by embracing its Michigan roots and sourcing the bulk of its potatoes from Michigan.

The company uses 60 million pounds of potatoes each year and has worked closely with the MSU breeding program.

“MSU looks for our input on different traits that we want to be bred into potatoes,” Gusmano said. A major advancement in varieties has come from breeding potatoes that can be stored longer.

“As little as eight to 10 years ago, we could only store potatoes through February,” Gusmano said. “Through varieties that have come out since, we can now store potatoes into July.

That allows our local growers to have a longer selling window. That helps them generate revenue and keep people employed throughout the year. It also helps keep our costs down."

Better Made welcomes breeders, growers, and MSU students and researchers to come in and learn about its processes, Gusmano said.

“They get an education on what we do. MSU can come in here when we do a test load for them, and they can see the results of their labor,” he said. “They’re able to bring not just professors but also some of the students, and really have a good concept of the process from start to finish.

“It helps because they can come in and see where our bottlenecks are. For example, if they have a variety that grows really large tubers, that does not work for us, because it may make the greatest looking chip, but if it doesn’t fit in the bag, that’s a problem.”

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