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Promoting sustainable potato production


July 13, 2009
By Marg Land


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potatoesJuly 13, 2009, Orono, ME – Making small changes in how potatoes are grown could yield big benefits for the environment.

July 13, 2009, Orono, ME – Making small changes in how potatoes are grown could yield big benefits for the environment.

Scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) are making potato production as sustainable and environmentally friendly as possible. So far, plants in the mustard (Brassica) family, which have natural pest suppression properties, have been key partners in this effort.

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At the ARS New England Plant, Soil and Water Laboratory in Orono, Maine, scientists have conducted long-term research with canola and other Brassica crops in rotation with potatoes since 1997. They’ve found that with the right crop rotation, potato farmers can naturally suppress diseases, enhance soil nutrient content, boost crop productivity, and lower the use of fertilizers, all of which lower the risks of economic losses.

Using rotation crops has reduced some soil-borne diseases from 20 to 50 per cent. Canola crops are particularly promising because they produce potent sulfur compounds that can knock down powdery scab and Rhizoctonia fungus.

Scientists at the ARS Vegetable and Forage Crops Production Research Unit in Prosser, Wash., have found that one to two tons of crushed mustard seed meal applied per acre without herbicides significantly reduced early weeds in potato fields. Mustard seed meal is left over after vegetable oil has been extracted.

Potato producers in the Pacific Northwest already use white and brown mustards as cover crops in rotation with potatoes to reduce wind erosion and help control plant pathogens. The Prosser researchers also determined that mustard cover crops can contribute more than 30 pounds of nitrogen to each acre of crop soil, which could save farmers $14 to $30 per acre, depending on the cost of nitrogen fertilizers.