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In a Land of Rice, a Potato Crop Blossoms

SEVEN YEARS AGO IN THAILAND, Patchara Pongam MS’93 PhD’97 found herself with a potato problem.

A graduate of the CALS plant pathology department, Pongam was working at Kasetsart University to help establish Thailand’s potato industry, a pet project of Thai King Bhumibol Adulydej. The king’s negotiations had helped land a Frito-Lay potato processing plant in the northern city of Chiang Mai, and he hoped farmers in the region would supply the plant with locally grown potatoes. But the crop was struggling. The combination of Thailand’s wet and hot growing seasons proved ideal for late blight, and Pongam was beginning to think it would be nearly impossible to produce potatoes year round.

Seeking a crash course in potato pest management, Pongam contacted Walt Stevenson PhD’73, a CALS professor of plant pathology. She traveled to UW-Madison in 2000, and her visit sparked a cross-continental effort to increase the productivity of Thailand’s potato crop through sustainable growing and pest management practices. Since then, Stevenson has made numerous trips to educate students and researchers on the integrated pest management system used by the Wisconsin potato industry. He also works closely with Somsiri Sanchote, a fruit and vegetable pathologist at Kasetsart University who has succeeded Pongam in monitoring the country’s potato crop. The two scientists now co-advise a graduate student, who will spend at least a semester in Wisconsin learning about seed certification techniques, as well as improved diagnosis and disease-resistance screening. Ultimately, the goal is to breed new disease-resistant potatoes for use in Thailand that would allow farmers to produce crops year-round and help supply the Frito-Lay plant.

In Thailand, Stevenson has taught classes, assisted with research projects, met with growers and industry representatives and even helped install a weather station. “It helps to put them on notice that the conditions have been favorable for late blight,” he says. “As the crop comes up, we run the data through software we developed here at the University of Wisconsin and that would indicate when to initiate sprays and the timing of the subsequent sprays.”

On one of his trips, Stevenson observed workers spraying 60 acres of potatoes by hand with limited protection. “When they walked across the field, their clothes become soaked with pesticide,” he says. “That’s not sustainable, and it’s pretty risky.” After discussing the problem with the grower and Sanchote, a simple change was implemented: The workers now walk backward while applying the sprays.

“It all goes back to, ‘How do we have a sustainable potato crop in Thailand that protects their environment and protects their workers, and yet produces a quality crop that Frito-Lay can use for chipping?'” says Stevenson.”This project capitalizes on our experiences here in Wisconsin and North America (using) solid, science-based integrated pest-management programs.”

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