Idaho potatoes, hurt by smoky skies in wildfire season, give researchers clues to crops’ climate future

On a sunny September morning, harvested potatoes pile up in a truck at Gross Seed Co. in Greenleaf, Idaho. Farmer Doug Gross says his yields are lower this yr after a hot summer.
Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

It was in 2012 that Addie Waxman began to notice an issue within the potato fields that keep North America’s burger joints and grocery freezers stocked with French fries. She was in Washington state, walking through smoke so thick she could barely see, and noticed that a few of the potato plants looked as in the event that they were shrivelling sooner than expected.

It seemed some plants were vulnerable to the dense haze blanketing the sector. When plants wilt, they will not convert sunlight into sugar – and sugar into starch. “So if the vines go down early, then they’re not making enough potatoes, or large enough potatoes,” said Dr. Waxman, who holds a PhD in potato science. And if the potatoes are stressed, they may also perform more poorly in storage.

Could the smoke be in charge? “I used to be like, whoa, I feel that’s something we must know more about,” she said.

Mr. Gross holds a few of his produce.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

A decade later, Dr. Waxman, now the manager of agronomy for McCain Foods, is watching rigorously as a bunch of scientists work to reply that query in Idaho, a state that’s the corporate’s largest-growing region and residential to its largest processing plant in North America.

The research group is midway through a two-year study designed to tease out how smoke affects the whole lot from the dimensions of a potato tuber to its chemical composition, from its durability in storage to the color of the French fries it yields.

The outcomes could have essential implications not only for McCain, the Canadian-headquartered food giant, but in addition for the vast agricultural industry within the western parts of the continent – and the fast-food appetites of a continent. Roughly half of all Idaho potatoes are made into French fries.

Climate change, and the appearance of warmer summers and fiercer wildfires, has made the research more pressing. The past two summers in Idaho – No. 1 in america for potato production – have been the most popular within the state’s history. This yr, Boise highs exceeded 38 C a complete of 27 times, seven greater than the previous record. And, as in much of western North America, smoke from forest and grassland fires is darkening summer skies with increasing regularity. Potato growers say yields are down by 10 to fifteen per cent.

What makes smoke particularly worrisome is that it might probably affect large geographic areas, filling entire valleys.

“We’ve had years where principally the entire month of August is smoky,” said Mike Larsen, chief marketing officer for the Mart Group, a big Idaho potato producer.

“The smokier the skies are, the less light that gets down here – and the less photosynthesis that’s going to occur. It will have a yield impact. It’s just, how much?”

Idaho is the highest-producing state for U.S. potatoes, because of farmers like Mr. Gross. Like the remainder of western North America, it’s also seen increasingly intense wildfires and smoke coverage lately.Nathan Vanderklippe/The Globe and Mail

The Cedar Creek fire in Oregon, one in every of Idaho’s neighbour states, as seen from a satellite on Sept. 9 and from the bottom on Sept. 13.

Planet Labs PBC, Oregon State Fire Marshal/AFP via Getty Images

That’s what researchers try to find out. This spring, the Idaho team planted three varieties of potato. For six weeks starting in July, they covered the plants each morning from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. with plastic sheeting, then set fire to a cocktail of hardwoods, mesquite pellets and pine needles. They piped the resulting smoke in to several of the rows, leaving others unsmoked to supply a degree of comparison. The aim was to copy the composition and density of wildfire smoke, which accommodates ozone, brown and black carbon, and volatile organic compounds.

Mornings are when the plants’ respiratory pores begin to open. If the potatoes are “going to take those compounds into the leaf, it might be in that time-frame,” said Mike Thornton, a plant scientist on the University of Idaho with deep family ties to potato research.

Changes to a potato’s makeup can affect the standard of a French fry. An excessive amount of sugar and it’ll turn dark, as if it was caramelizing. Too little starch – what the industry refers to as solids – and the fry can go hole when cooked. If a potato is just too small, the fry will likely be too short to make its seductive peek out of the highest of the McDonald’s box.

But wildfire smoke has grow to be a growing concern across the agricultural industry.

A British-Chinese study in 2018 documented reduced photosynthesis from higher ozone levels brought on by large burns and concluded that fireside pollution “poses an increasing threat to ecosystem productivity in a warming future world.”

Last yr, one other Idaho study found that a dairy cow’s milk production could drop by as much as five litres a day – roughly 10 per cent – during times of heavy wildfire smoke.

Wildfire smoke obscures the setting sun over a vineyard in Finley, Calif., in 2018.Marcio Jose Sanchez/The Associated Press

Vintners, too, have come to fear smoke taint in grapes. It may well produce flavours in wine described in academic literature as “ashy” and “burning rubber.” Sophisticated scientific tools, including spectroscopic techniques and machine learning, have been employed to higher understand what is going on, including the ways compounds from smoke are altered by fermentation.

“Everybody is attempting to work out what to do,” said Greg Jones, a climatologist who’s chief executive of Abacela Vineyards and Winery in Roseburg, Ore. Like grapes, many potatoes are grown in climates which might be naturally dry in summer, and becoming much more so with climate change. In Canada, for instance, 40 per cent of potatoes are grown in Alberta and Manitoba.

Mr. Jones’s research has pointed to a different way smoke can upend agriculture. In 2020 he monitored temperatures in rural areas affected by smoke and compared those with unaffected places. The differences were stark: Beneath smoke, daytime temperatures were 4.5 to eight degrees cooler. At night, temperatures remained three to 4.5 degrees warmer.

For potatoes, warmer nights can wreak havoc. As a substitute of consolidating starches within the evening cool, the plants spend the night perspiring, burning off any gains they’ve made. Smoke also tends to trap humidity, keeping dew on plants, which may speed the spread of pathogens akin to early blight.

“What has hurt us greater than anything is the new nights,” said Doug Gross, a respected potato farmer who grows about 20,500 metric tonnes of potatoes a yr just west of Boise and is now on his forty eighth crop.

After the extreme heat of this summer, Mr. Gross said, yields are down 10 to fifteen per cent.

Mr. Gross says hot nights are the foremost reason his yields were lower this yr.Nathan Vanderklippe/The Globe and Mail

Farmers and researchers hope the smoke study may help discover whether certain varieties are less vulnerable. It might also drive genetics research. “I might expect that in the longer term, potatoes might be bred which might be more smoke tolerant,” said Joseph Guenthner, an agricultural economist who’s an emeritus scholar on the University of Idaho.

Advanced manufacturing technology could also help transform smoke-exposed potatoes into higher-grade products, said Owen McDougal, a food chemist at Boise State University.

Each men are working on the smoke research project – and what they and the opposite scientist learn could have bearing on other crops as well.

In Idaho, farmers have already begun asking Prof. Thornton, “Should you get this discovered for potatoes, are you able to do it for onions?”

On Mr. Gross’s potato farm, the harvest continues.
Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

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