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Potato Breeding

( Originally Published 1915 )

In some parts of the country the potato crop is more important than the corn crop, in which case the emphasis should be placed on the breeding of potatoes. It is frequently claimed that potatoes " run out," and by the theory of species creation and extinction, this is true. Whether potatoes " run out " or not, the secrets of larger yields are in seed selection for blight-resistant, high yielding tubers, and in the creation of new varieties by planting the seed from the "potato apple " (Fig. 22). The potato blossom is not attractive to insects, hence the berry does not often form. But occasionally the berry does mature and, if the seed is saved as we save tomato seed and planted as we do the tomato seed, we may get an improved potato. Luther Burbank's experience leads us to believe that about one in ten thousand may be an improvement over what we now have.

Tuber-unit Selection.—Farmers are frequently planting large, good-sized and good-shaped potatoes. These should be cut in quarters and the four pieces planted in four consecutive hills. The next four hills should be planted from another single tuber and so on. There is interesting work throughout the season watching the potato patch to see which tubers give tops that are strongly resistant to the blights. Some succumb very easily and some stand with blight and destruction all around them (Fig. 23). Of course the power to resist blight does not insure a high yielder. We must wait until digging time and then dig the potatoes with a fork and keep those from each hill separately. Then we may compare results. The boys in the national clubs who have done this work may use the national label, which is somewhat like the label used by the corn breeders.

If the work is begun in the fall instead of the spring, we start with hill selection instead of with tuber-unit planting. For hill selection we go over the field in late August or early September and mark hills that have stout, blight-resistant tops. This is done by carrying an armful of little stakes and setting one at each approved hill. Then we wait until digging time and fork out the potatoes, placing the tubers from each hill together. We compare yields, and if we are national club growers we gather seed from those that have not less than six good-sized, good-shaped, high-scoring tubers to the hill. (For the potato score card, see Chapter IV.) The potatoes from each hill should be saved in little sacks ; these sacks may be placed in a barrel and the barrel kept with the other seed potatoes. We wish to have the seed endure ordinary care and treatment. The next spring the potatoes from each hill-unit are to be planted in rows by themselves. If we select six potatoes from each sack, cut each into four pieces and plant one piece, we have row-units of twenty-four hills each. These are convenient units. Since we are dealing with stem selection, we may have our breeding patch for potatoes in rows along a side of the regular field. We wish to give the tops a hard test for blights; the more they overcome the better the seed we get.

In addition to breeding for or selecting better seed, some of the boys will want to enter the potato-growing contest. In many counties, the banks, private individuals, the colleges and other institutions offer prizes well worth striving for. The West Chester, Pa., State Normal School gives a trip to Washington with the senior class to the club winners ; others give the winner a free trip to State College for the Short Course. In order to win as a potato grower, the boy needs to know :

1. How to get the best seed.
2. How to select the best acre.
3. How to prepare and fertilize his soil.
4. How to plant.
5. How to spray and cultivate.
6. How to advertise, pack and sell.
7. How to keep clean, neat, accurate booklets of his work. These may be learned from reading the government bulletins and the special circulars issued by Mr. O. II. Benson for the boys and girls in the clubs. Farmers should not be urged to try too many varieties; one good early and one good late potato are enough. The same is true for the boys and the schools. Again the work is accumulative and there is danger of teachers under-taking to do too much. " A little well done " should be our motto. We are doing the work largely for the thinking that it may make the children do. It does not take much plant breeding to induce a great deal of thinking. We are trying to help " make the better best and the best better." Some one says, " The best seed obtainable is none too good."

The teacher must not miss the deeper and broader meaning of the plant breeding. As Coulter says: " We do not want our boys to become merely efficient farmers who have learned to do certain things that make more dollars. We want them to be men who realize the larger applications of the laws and principles they are following, men who see and discriminate, who grasp situations, who think for themselves, and who have an abiding interest and enthusiasm for their profession, looking upon their fields, orchards and meadows somewhat as laboratories in which to work out experiments to the end that they may do their work more profitably and enjoyably."

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