By Crystal Chen
Capital News Service
Michigan farmers with more than an acre of seed potatoes would face new requirements under a bill passed by the Michigan Senate and House: to plant only certified seed potatoes.
The intent is to reduce the possible spread of diseases that could have a major economic impact on the state’s agricultural industry, supporters say.
Michigan ranks ninth among the states in potato production with 47,000 acres planted, according to the Michigan Potato Industry Commission. The crop contributes $178 million annually to the state’s economy.
Montcalm, Mecosta, Antrim, St. Joseph and Delta counties are among the top producers in the state, said Mike Wenkel, the executive director of the commission.
In Michigan, 70 percent go into potato chips. Michigan potatoes fill one of every four bags of chips in the country, according to the National Potato Council.
Rep. Roger Victory, R- Hudsonville, the main sponsor of the bill, said Michigan is one of the only potato-producing states that doesn’t currently have a certified potato seed law.
“It is crucial that we take proactive steps to safeguard the industry’s continued success,” Victory said. “This legislation is very similar to regulations found in other potato-producing states.”
The bill is the result of many years of work and collaboration with the industry advocacy group Potato Growers of Michigan and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, he said.
Among the co-sponsors are Reps. Jim Lower, R-Cedar Lake; Dave Pagel, R-Berrien Springs; Aaron Miller, R-Sherman Township; Triston Cole, R-Mancelona; and David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids.
Chris Long, a potato specialist at Michigan State University, said that virus accumulation in potato seed is detrimental to healthy crop production, and other bacterial and fungal pathogens including late blight are also of great concern.
“The bill is a good thing,” Long said. “The certified seed law would better regulate seed that is at a higher risk to the potato industry and prevent it from ever being planted.”
Wenkel said, “Michigan potato growers are also working to manage disease, insects and other pests that can damage the crop. This includes many possible impacts on the seed during the growing season and the storage of the crop.”
Wenkel said potato seed is different from most types of seed used in producing food because it’s a piece of potato that will grow into a new plant when placed in the ground. “Since they are living tissue, they can easily harbor disease and pests from one year to the next.”
“Through seed certification, many of the diseases are monitored during seed production and provided to the buyers to assist them in managing these diseases,” he said. “Our goal in supporting this legislation is to protect our industry and our reputation for growing quality potatoes from being impacted by diseases.”
The percentage of potatoes planted now using certified seed is unknown. “Today growers can use anything as seed,” Wenkel said, “although it is believed that most seed planted is certified.”
The bill would require potato growers to plant certified potatoes and allow exemptions only under special conditions.
It also would allow a grower to secure an annual exemption if certified seed isn’t available. “The annual exemption is a critical component of the bill to ensure that no grower would be impacted in growing a crop for a season,” Wenkel said.
Victory said that the bill also provides a special exemption for small potatoes and for individuals who plant and distribute less than an acre of seed potatoes, such as hobby farms.
John Marker, the owner and operator of Marker Farms in Elmira grows seed potatoes.
The legislation wouldn’t have a negative impact on his farm, he said. “All the seeds my farm uses are certified.”
“The bill is more directed towards the commercial growers in the state,” Marker said. “When they are replanting potatoes, they do not go through an inspection process” and could be replanting diseased potatoes.
Marker said the proposal, if signed, would reduce the risks to the industry and to other growers who are trying to do things correctly by planting clean seed.
The bill is awaiting the governor’s signature.