When Jake Blauer lived in Brazil, he says he saw a lot of potatoes, “but they were often green.”
Blauer is the newly hired post-harvest potato physiologist at Washington State University. What green potatoes meant to Blauer was that they had been improperly stored. A farmer can grow a great crop of potatoes but if the crop is not managed properly after harvest, there can be significant loses, resulting in poor quality and reduced access to a nutritious energy source. Spuds turning green can also signal the presence of glycoalkaloids. High concentrations of glycoalkaloids can be toxic to humans, potentially causing gastrointestinal problems.
Blauer says that being raised on a farm, seeing global hunger challenges, working in potato processing and seeing the ways storage, distribution, and quality can be improved, all inspired him to pursue a doctoral degree in Molecular Plant Science at WSU. His mentor was WSU potato physiologist Rick Knowles, whose retirement in 2020 opened the door for Blauer’s hire.
“I’m delighted to be rejoining the potato research team,” Blauer said. “These are amazing people, and I’m excited to be able to contribute to this great industry.”
WSU’s potato extension specialist Mark Pavek, a professor of horticulture who worked closely with Knowles for many years, said, “Jake is a good fit for the potato physiologist position. He has experience in the both the private and public sectors which will enable him to look at research projects from both angles, something the industry will appreciate. And because of his experience, he already knows many of the potato industry representatives, growers, and researchers.”
Blauer says he’ll keep the foundation of the Knowles’ research program moving forward. He’ll also utilize his background in variety development to continue to elucidate the genetic mechanisms associated with postharvest physiology and storability.
Much of the work of postharvest physiologists is behind the scenes, meaning most consumers of fresh fruit and vegetables don’t realize how important their research is. To store potatoes, they must be kept cool—but how cool? Too cold, and potatoes undergo undesirable chemical changes. One of many challenges Blauer is confronting is called low-temperature sweetening. Kept too cool for too long, spuds in storage form sugars that, when the potatoes are sliced and fried, make the resulting fry too dark. Other challenges include tuber size, because a wide range of sizes means more waste, as only spuds within a narrow size range are ideal for processing or fresh pack.
At WSU, Blauer will conduct both in-field and postharvest studies to understand the full picture and to explain how choices during crop production will have significant impacts months later in storage.
Blauer works closely with the Northwest Potato Variety Development team, a multi-institution group of researchers that strive to develop new varieties for both processing (French fries, hash browns, and more) as well as fresh pack varieties best for baking. Postharvest research can help potato breeders come up with varieties that are more nutritious, have better disease resistance, store better, and use fewer inputs, including less water.
Blauer plans to partner with agronomy experts to ensure that the potato industry’s environmental footprint is as small as possible while still producing a profitable and tasty product.
“All of these are strong interests,” Blauer adds, “but I want to solicit the input of industry and learn from growers, storage facilities, and processors what is most important for them.”
Blauer grew up on a farm in south Idaho, where “potatoes were one of the rotation crops, so agriculture has always been forefront in my mind.”
After studying plant science and chemistry as an undergraduate, Blauer went to work in the potato processing industry. Wanting to expand his impact, he decided to get an advanced degree. As he explored his options, he saw that WSU’s Molecular Plant Sciences programs was not only nationally ranked, but researchers also focused on exactly the kinds of issues he wanted to help address.
With his Ph.D. in hand, Blauer returned to industry, working on trait development in potatoes and, later, in alfalfa, where he researched ways to improve yield, stress tolerance, and milk production.
When the position at WSU opened up, Blauer says he saw it as a great opportunity to return to the potato world. “The Pacific Northwest is one of the best places in the world to be in potato research,” he said.