Our new blight resister is a tomato!

In recent years, trying to grow tomatoes outdoors has been a waste of time. But now you can plant a new variety,Crimson Crush, confident that it will cope when the potato/tomato blight strikes in June or July each year.

Crimson Crush is a cordon (indeterminate) tomato with large fruits and a good flavour and is available as seedlings from Suttons Seeds.

The research behind this new variety was a collaboration between the Sarvari Research Trust, Bangor University and an independent breeder, Simon Crawford of Burpee Europe.  The project was part funded by a Knowledge Economy Skills Scholarship (KESS) of the EU to James Stroud, a PhD student supervised by BU crop breeder, Katherine Steele.

Breeding material was screened for molecular markers, indicating the presence of resistance genes known to be effective against Phytophthora infestans.  In Crimson Crush, the resistance genes Ph-2  and Ph-3 are present.  This combination confers improved resistance to the strains of blight that have arisen in recent years.

Katherine, James and Simon show the tomato trial at Henfaes Research Centre to Medwyn Williams

Bees and potatoes and fungicides

Did you hear Dave Goulson just now BBC radio 4 "The life scientific"  I am a great fan of Dave and have just read his book on Bumblebees "A sting in the tail".  Dave et al. have been doing some experiments on Neonicotinoid insecticides, usually present in OSR (rape) fields as a seed dressing.  

He treated half of his nests of a common bumblebee with a neonic, at the concentration calculated from the amount on pollen from treated plants that would be brought back to a nest.  Later he counted new queens from treated and untreated nests and found 85% reduction in new queens in treated nests. Clearly the neonic at low concs has a drastic effect on nest productiviy.

This gets me wondering if the mix of fungicides applied to flowering crops of potatoes at weekly intervals to control late blight has any effect on the pollinating insects on the crop.  We hope to learn more about pollinating insects on potato when we do an experiment at Henfaes Research Centre in 2014 as part of a KESS project.  My MRes student, Natalie Chivers, will run the experiment and we hope to find out just how many bees and other insects are present in plots of various varieties of spud (Sarpo included) in different locations.  We will not get all the answers but will certainly know more of the questions we need to ask.

A world food revolution - seawater-fed potatoes in the news

The Observer on Saturday heralded a breakthrough by a  group from the Netherlands who are irrigating their potatoes with diluted seawater.  Now why does that sound familiar.  Oh I remember.  In 2012 and 2011 we conducted trials to find out if seawater can control late blight of potato. And the result? We found that 50% seawater did not damage potato plants growing in pots or in the field. When pots were watered with a dense suspension of sporangia of P. infestans, seawater treated pots yielded healthy potatoes whereas controls with  tap water only, had a high proportion of blighted tubers.
Results on blight control from field plots were less convincing but there was a clear increase in yield of potatoes in the treated plots  in both of the fields chosen for the trial when compared with fresh water plots.  
This work was part-funded by the Potato Council Ltd and by a KESS (Knowledge, Economy, Skills) scholarship from Bangor University and the EU to our student, Lorena Larreon.

Our Open Days on 4th and 5th September welcomed around 60 guests to Henfaes, over two days of perfect summer weather. 

James outlines his PhD research
Our tomato experts were there in force on the first day. Simon Crawford of Burpee Europe introduced our collaborative  project on breeding tomato varieties with better resistance to late blight. John Burrows and Barry Smith from ProVeg  provided tomato samples for guests to taste and score. James Stroud (PhD - KESS student with SRT and Bangor University) told us about his latest results on breeding with resistance genes and on a comparison of populations of Phytophthora infestans taken from tomato with that from potato in UK. James is making good progress identifying resistance genes using molecular probes and combining these in progeny that have desirable traits for the amateur and professional grower.

Simon Crawford, James and Katherine
discuss the trial with Medwyn Williams
Katherine explains the tunnel trial
After the talks, Simon, John, Barry and Katherine Steele (KESS supervisor, Bangor University) showed guests around the field and  poly tunnels  Here, selected genotypes and cultivars are on trial for their blight resistance, taste and use in the UK outdoor climate. 
 David Shaw introduced and updated our work on the Sarpo range of blight resistant potatoes.  A current research strand involves treating blight-susceptible varieties of potato with dilute sea water. Results show this can suppress tuber blight and increase crop yield. A trial  with a foliar feed containing phosphite (Phi-Diamond) showed suppression of foliage blight and also increased yield of tubers of blight susceptible cultivars.
Simon White explains the replicated potato trial

Simon White told guests about the production of Sarpo seed potato crops in North Wales and elsewhere and his ongoing project selecting new Sarpo varieties. We were pleased to introduce David Gale who is now managing sales of Sarpo seed for our new company, Sarpo Potatoes Ltd, which is owned by the Trust.

When we visited the field trial of potatoes, guests saw Sarpo blight resistance in action. Replicate plots of selected cultivars and potential cultivars were showing little or no foliage blight They  stood out from plots of susceptible cultivars (dead) and of controls with only moderate resistance.

David Shaw and Simon in the potato trial
We were pleased to welcome some of our team of Buzzbnk Crowdfunders on the Friday. A few of these are having fun doing their own crosses and selecting for traits that interest them.  This activity was common among amateur growers in the 19th century and should be pursued more often today.  You never know, you might find a winner.

We were pleased to welcome our own Potato Guru from Fyfe, Alan Romans.  Alan told us what the Sarpo potatoes mean to him and their greater importance in the world of potatoes. He emphasised that they are a different breed of potato from those most often grown.  To be grown well they need to be understood and treated differently e.g. their ability to be used early, mid-season and late and the dangers of letting them grow on too long in the autumn. Experiment!

On both days, our visitors enjoyed  a potato-themed lunch made with Sarpo varieties and cooked by Café-Deli 1815. Chips made from new-season’s Blue Danube went down well, and so did the  local Jones o Gymru crisps.

Sarvari Research Trust is part supported by the Supply Chain Efficiencies scheme of the Welsh Government under the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development.


As always, the blight season in 2014 has been different from all others.  Some sites had severe infections in June and others, not more than a mile away, did not suffer infection for another month.  Differences are partly due to microclimate but more likely this year is presence or absence of an active source of infection ie spores being produced from a sprouted and infected tuber that was bought in as seed or was dumped or unharvested from a last year's crop.
Our trial at Henfaes now has dead plots of susceptible varieties (like King Edward and Maris Piper) and growing plots with little or no blight indicating a genotype with substantial resistance.  Simon is scoring the percentage of foliage infected within each plot at regular intervals.  The trial should be demonstrating differences of resistance/susceptibility for all genotypes in time for our Open Days on 4 and 5 September.
Plant pathologist, George Little, from Northern Ireland (Bangor) discussing resistance of clones with Simon in trial at Henfaes.  The King Edward plot has dead foliage

Blight is off to an early start.

Every year the disease we call Late Blight is around and waiting to destroy our crops of potato and tomato.  And every year, the arrival and reproduction of the pathogen, Phytophthora infestans, is different.  Last year we didn't see much disease until very late in the season but we had a very mild winter.  This means that unharvested tubers lying on or just under the soil surface were not frosted and some of these must have carried a latent infection of blight. Some of these infected tubers will grow on as volunteers in the next crop or in a ditch or discard pile and in a small percentage of these the blight will grow into the sprout and produce spores on the leaves and stems. Similarly, latent infection on seed tubers can give rise to an outbreak of the disease.

That's how blight gets started each year. The first sample, from a dump, was noted on 9th May.  This is quite a bit earlier than usual.  The weather in May and in early June favoured blight reproduction and spread - that is, minimum temperatures above 10C and high humidity or rainfall. As a service to potato growers, the Potato Council Ltd has a web site that records when blight has been detected in postcode areas throughout GB.  This depends on potato professionals (Blight Scouts) sending leaves or stems from suspected outbreaks to FERA for confirmation. Amateurs (Monitors) are also encouraged to  register and receive prepaid mailing envelops and instructions. Dots are placed on the map so that the risk of blight arriving on healthy crops can be assessed.  Conducive weather (Smith periods) AND a confirmed outbreak in your area means that you  must watch your crop carefully for the first signs of the tale-tale brown/black spots on leaves and stems that indicate blight. That is when the commercial grower will protect his crop with fungicide and apply it at weekly intervals to prevent any infection. In dry conditions, the weekly applications are usually discontinued or extended.

Of course growers of our Sarpo varieties do not need to use fungicide.  But if you are growing a Sarpo cultivar with moderate resistance on a large scale you might consider less frequent application of preventive fungicide particularly in a wet season.

A measure of the earliness of blight this year is that 88 samples of blighted foliage were sent in by the end of June whereas you need to go back to 2006 or 2007 to find anything approaching this number.  In 2006, 60 blight outbreaks were detected and 56 in 2007 (which later became a blight meltdown year).
Our trials at Henfaes have remained healthy so far in spite of severe blight outbreaks on the allotments at Llanfairfechan a few miles to the east. Early attacks are devastating as the whole plant may lose all foliage before any tubers have formed = CROP FAILURE.

Allotment gardens are often places where blight develops.This is because lots of susceptible varieties are grown, few if any are sprayed against blight and hygiene in not always up to scratch e.g. dumps of old tubers and volunteers on neglected plots. So 2014 has the makings of a meltdown year again but it all depends on the weather during July and August.  We just might escape.
Open Day at Henfaes in Mid June - no blight in sight - yet.
This plant was infected soon after emergence. Latent infection of the seed tuber is a strong possibility here.

New Scientist letter on blighted Sarpos - but was it late blight?

Today's New Scientist has a letter from Andrew Sanderson, Co Durham who grew Sarpo Una and Sarpo Mira. He says that the Sarpo varieties suffered from blight whereas the variety Kestrel was unaffected.  He makes no mention of the crop of tubers he harvested from each variety.

The blight scores recorded in the 'official' database for Kestrel is 5 for foliage blight and 3 for tuber blight (scale 1-9 where 1 is susceptible and 9 is highest resistance). On the same scale, Sarpo Mira scores 7 (foliage) and 9 (tubers); Sarpo Una foliage is 6 and tubers 5.  In our own trials we find similar results except that Sarpo Mira usually scores 8 on foliage.

 Now, what could be going on here?  Have the Sarpo varieties changed in their resistance due to evolution of the blight pathogen? Before we jump to that conclusion there are other possible explanations. The short note does not say if plants were all grown close together in a garden plot or separated spatially. Microclimate varies across even a small plot so that after rain, foliage may dry more  quickly in one microsite and slower in another. This would affect the severity of blight infection.

It is assumed that the blight was the late-blight disease caused by Phytophthora infestans. But dark spots on the leaves can be due to other diseases and pests or even to nutrient deficiency in the soil.  Sarpo Mira often shows deficiency symptoms on lower leaves that are not disease related and do not seem to affect yield.

If Andrew has an experimental bent, he could try growing the same varieties from fresh certified seed and if similar results are obtained, samples could be sent to SRT for positive identification. Even better, he could give half the seed of each variety to a friend and have them grown on a different site and compare results.

Dublin on St Pat's weekend, Potato Day in Leitrim and 6nations win

The invitation to be key speaker at The Organic Centre's Potato Day in Leitrim was the excuse I needed to cross the small pond, renew old potato friendships and develop new. It was good to eat again at Mulligan's in the Stoneybatter.  They supply an amazing range of Irish and foreign ales. Friday was a fine day and ideal for a quick survey of seed potato outlets in Co. Wicklow with Colm.  Had a quick look at Mount Usher Garden and vowed to return at leisure; not a potato in sight.
Copper spray on sale with seed potatoes - gardeners do not know how lethal this stuff is!

Dinner at Podraig Galligher's The Boxty House in Temple Bar. As you would expect, he uses substantial quantities of ware spuds and is keen to put Sarpos on the menu and grow some Sarpos as decoration for outside the restaurant.

Podraig's Potato Scratchings are made from thin slices of Boxty - scrummy.
Turf-smoked salmon with Lumper potatoes

Colm O’Callaghan drove us to Leitrim on Saturday in time for a great potato lunch.  We had a sharp audience for the Sarpo talk although I hear 6-nations game kept some at home. After much potato crack, Colm drove us back via the stunning scenery of Kinlough and Enniskillin, diving in and out of NI Co. Fermanagh – real blight (and famine) country.

Sunday was a grand day. We met farmer John Swabby-Miller at Red Cross, Co. Wicklow to see his part-harvested crop of Axona.  Although planted late, the crop grew away fast and smothered a huge weed population including thistles. The field where the Axonas were still to harvest was totally free of weeds and the test digs yielded excellent samples that Kaethe will offer to the great and the good of the Dublin food scene.  John grows a range of veg for his farmers’ market at Red Cross.  He is offering to grow plots of all the Sarpos for demonstration in the summer.

Axona samples look in excellent condition


Our lenders are due Sarpo Seed Potatoes as part of the interest we pay on the loan.  We are trying very hard to send these out this week and next so that you can get them planted as soon as possible. 

We would appreciate if growers could pay for post and package; we will let you know by e-mail how much that will be.

Crowdfunding Success to Revolutionise Potato Growing

We are delighted to announce that we have completed our Crowdfund on BUZZBNK and managed to raise £42,445.00. 

During the 90-day appeal, we rapidly achieved our first milestone of £20,000 and motored on to get fairly close to our second milestone of £50,000.  This could not have been done without all our supporters who recommended our cause to so many friends and contacts. The Buzz on twitter and Facebook was amazing.  

So, many thanks to all who supported us and especially to those contributing donations and loans. We would also like to thank the team at Buzzbnk for helping acheive our aims and to the A-Team Challenge that match-funded us to the tune of £10,000. We are working hard now to pay Sarpo-seed interest to our lenders so that they can plant the seed as the soil warms up. We wish all our growers good luck with their crops. We would be delighted to hear about your experiences with Sarpo in the field or garden and also in the kitchen.  

The production and sales team are now able to make ready for a new launch of our Sarpo varieties and for sales next winter, in as many outlets as possible.

Apologies for this blog being late.  I was in Dublin and Leitrim attending Potato Events in the run-up to St Patrick's Day.  Of this, more later.

Citizen Science - THE CROW REPORT: buzzbnk CROWdfunders' trials, 2013

Assessment of two Sarpo Clones, 2013
Before submitting a potato clone to the costly UK National Listing process, breeders gather a huge amount of information to ensure the clone they are submitting has the highest chance of being accepted.  This information covers yield, disease resistance, eating and cooking assessments, appearance and every other aspect of the clone’s performance. The National List committee judge each clone by its Value for Cultivation and Use (VCU). It also needs to be Distinct, Uniform and Stable (DUS).
Two Sarpo clones, #12 (Crow “A”) and #32 (Crow “B”), were trialled by 33 growers around the UK.  Sites were widely distributed and covered the north of Scotland to Guernsey and Belfast. A wide range of sites ensured that the two clones were exposed to different soil types, growing techniques, weather and also different strains of the UK blight population (Phytophthora infestans).  Growers were asked for their observations on blight resistance, vigour, maturity, yield, cooking and eating qualities and any other comments.  These findings are summarised below.

Resistance to Late-Blight disease
A much drier summer than in recent years resulted in blight occurring later in many areas.  Comments on blight resistance frequently mentioned that infection occurred at the time of senescence (plants stop growing and foliage turns yellow) for Crow A, which is known to be of earlier maturity than Crow B.  In general, Crow B was more blight resistant than Crow A. This supports previous results from SRT field trials.  No tuber blight was recorded in either clone.  All growers said that the foliage of non-Sarpo varieties was more susceptible to blight.

Crow A grown in Belfast showing multiple blight lesions.  Picture courtesy of Dr Louise Cooke

Yield and Appearance of Tubers
The average yield from two plants was 2.23kg for Crow A compared with 1.66kg for Crow B, based on responses from 11 growers.  Crow A was also the most uniform in shape and size and had the better skin finish according to the majority of respondents. In areas where soils condition were very dry, Crow B was often described as having rough, cracked or netted skin.  Crow A was less affected.

Yield from two plants of Crow A (left) and Crow B (right).  Picture courtesy of Alys Fowler.

Other Observations in the Garden
Common scab was a frequent problem with Crow B, an observation consistent with those in SRT field trials.  Crow A was less affected. Scab is aggravated by dry soil at the time of tuber initiation. Both clones had some reported mis-shapes and green tubers which could be corrected in commercial fields by de-stoning and deeper planting.   Slug damage was reported at low levels in both clones.  There were no reports of soft or dry rots in the harvested tubers.

Crow B showing extremely high levels of common scab and some greening.  Picture courtesy of Dr Louise Cooke

Cooking and Taste
Both clones were judged very favourably for cooking characteristics and taste.  Examples of comments on the two clones are as follows:
Crow A:
“Nice and nutty”; “as good as Kifli”; “smooth and firm and excellent as a salad potato”; “floury and good tasting”
Crow B:
“Earthy, floury and good”; “fluffy and perfect for roasting”; “good shape for chipping”, “a bit dry but good flavour”
The only wholly negative comment from one grower was that Crow B was “horrid, bitter and soapy” when boiled.

Based on the results provided by our Crowd of growers, I would recommend Crow A as the better clone to take on to the National List.  However, I would advise that the trial was repeated, as 2013 was not an ideal year to assess blight resistance in many areas.  I would also advise adding another clone, #25, to the assessment in 2014.
We already have large amount of data for Crow A and Crow B from SRT field trials.  This has been greatly enhanced by feedback from Crowdfunders in 2013.  However, before we can proceed with confidence to National List submission more information is needed for both clones.  To this end it is suggested that a standardised “score sheet” is prepared so that better observations on maturity, crop vigour and cooking qualities can be made.

Simon White, Trials and Seed Manager, SRT
Henfaes Research Centre, February, 2014

A crowd of citizen scientists at Sarpo's Potato Day

St David's Day 2014 at Henfaes Research Centre was special in several ways. Yes, there was plenty of sunshine, plenty daffodils but also a big celebration to mark our Crowdfunding success of reaching £33,000 for Sarpo Potatoes Ltd.   David Shaw welcomed thirty Crowdfunders to Henfaes to learn more about blight, the advantages of our low-input  varieties and plans for the trading company formed to bring Sarpo varieties centre stage.  Simon White told guests about seed production and how the crowd from last year had assessed two potential new varieties. David Gale outlined the structure of the new company and introduced the management team.  James Stroud gave guests a flavour of some of his research on late blight of tomato. He has characterised the strains of blight that attack tomato and those attacking potato. James is breeding varieties for outdoor growing in UK - blight-resistant varieties - in a collaborative project with Bangor University.
The crowd was sustained by potato soup (with leek), potato bread rolls and several kinds of twice baked, stuffed Sarpos (Axona and Blue Danube).  Not a morsel remained!
After lunch we discussed future plans and the crowd offered useful suggestions for branding and funding of the new company.  Simon provided seed to lenders who had earned interest and distributed seed of three potential varieties that members of the crowd will grow, observe, measure and taste.
The crowd resolved to make a final effort to grow the fund in its last 13 days of life to as near as possible to its second milestone of £50k. It was agreed that an efficient way would be for each person to email/phone/write to 10 of their most likely contacts. These would be people most likely to support a project to promote the growing of no-spray, blight-resistant potatoes - an alternative to GM blight resistant potatoes but that are available NOW.

We would like to thank all our Crowdfunders for supporting us in such useful ways.

Crowdfunding success☺☺☺

We are delighted that our #SarpoCrowd have donated/loaned over £20,000 since December. Many thanks to our 152 backers, many of whom have tirelessly tweeted, retweeted and facebooked about our appeal.

More good news. The A-team Foundation has awarded us a loan of £10,000 to match the first £10k of our buzzbnk fund to make a current total of just over £30,500. The A-team Foundation supports environmentally responsible, food organisations like ours. 

Buzzbnk has now agreed to reset our target to £50,000 to be reached in another 30 days. This means our new goal is to raise another £19,500.  With 150 backers to help WE CAN DO IT. Our buzzbnk page tells us that our most popular backers loan us £50 or £100 with interest.  So please, crowd, renew your efforts! Cajole your friends and contacts to join the crowd and contribute.  This extra capital will help us to increase our production of seed so that growers are not disappointed when we sell out. At the same time it will make our business financially independent in its aim to promote our potatoes. Sarpos are low-input and grow without the massive doses of fungicides being sprayed on potatoes to control late-blight disease.

Please tell us your good ideas for finding new backers: @SarpoUK, facebook and e-mail info@sarvari-trust.org

River Cottage HQ cook Sarpo - love them!

I recently sent samples of 5 Sarpo varieties, grown here in N. Wales to RC's head chef Gelf Alderson. Here is his careful assessment.

Sarpo potatoes – an evaluation at River Cottage HQ

For all varieties I boiled, mashed and chipped, the stand out two varieties were the Shona and the Axonas, these two would fit most needs of a commercial operation and would be the varieties I would be most interested in growing.
                             Sarpo Shona
·         Made good mash, if being ultra-critical had a slightly powdery finish on it, but still an excellent result, smooth, fluffy and a good potato flavour
·         Amazing chips, one of the best chipping potatoes I have used, blew away any organic variety I can currently source
·         Boiled and eaten cold they were perfectly acceptable but were quite powdery and would have to have a good dressing or mayonnaise to make them usable cold.

Blue Danube

·         Made a nice smooth mash, really nice texture although a little weak on flavour
·         Made ok chips, did really crisp up that well, not as good as the Shona or Axona
·         Not good cold, had a strange texture and lacked flavour

Sarpo Una

·         Did not make good mash, very sticky and over worked almost instantly
·         Ok chips, I actually sautéed this variety as well and it worked slightly better, better than the average organic potato
·         Was ok cold a little watery and slightly lacking in flavour

Sarpo ‘Axona’

·         Made the best mash of the bunch, light, fluffy, really good flavour, a pleasure to work with
·         Really good chips hard to fault, light, crispy didn’t take on too much oil, really good quality
·         Nice cold could be put to many uses without too much needed to help it out, retained it’s flavour and maintained a good texture.

Sarpo ‘Kifli’
·         Did not make good mash, very wet, gloopy and tasteless
·         Not good chips, dry matter content way too low could not get them to crisp at all
·         Best use for them were cold but were not as good as the Axona or Shona. ( Although my thought may not be that positive on this variety they are around the standard of about 50% of the organic potatoes on the market currently)

I hope this helps in the development of these varieties for you and I would be interested in getting some of the Shonas and Axonas grown for me, and am starting to talk to some local farmers to see if they are interested. Although I have levelled criticism at some of varieties the Danube, Shona and Axona are way above the standard of main crop organic potatoes, so I look forward to spreading the word.
Gelf Alderson.

Head Chef, River Cottage HQ , January 2014

Gelf did not test them as roasties but others have found Blue Danube to be 'The best roast potato- ever'.
Sarpo Una is really an early potato and eats best when freshly harvested 'in the green' from the field.
Sarpo Kifli is a summer potato yielding very good-tasting potatoes when freshly harvested from late July through until October. It is ideal for a box scheme.