Despite the many challenges the industry was facing, the general mood at British Potato 2021 (BP2021) was upbeat and by lunchtime on its first day, many stands were busy, although it was quieter in the afternoon. Here, Heather Briggs picks out a few highlights for The Scottish Farmer:

Renowned Scottish seed producer wins industry award

The late Gordon Smillie, one of the most well-respected seed producers in the UK, was this year’s winner of the British Potato Industry Award.

Given for his outstanding contribution to the industry, the posthumous award was presented at BP2021.

Former colleagues described him as a man of incredible energy and generosity, remarking that he was fearlessly entrepreneurial travelling extensively in some of the more dangerous parts of the world to try to open new markets.

This was partly driven by his love for new people and new culture and he had a great ability to make friends wherever he went.

However, these forays led to a number of hair-raising stories of border crossings as on occasion they even took place at gunpoint between warring countries.

Read more: AHDB letters cause potato row

Talking about their days together at Caithness Potatoes, Robert Doig (now of Caledonian Potatoes) remarked that alongside his business growing about 280ha (700 acres) of seed potatoes, Mr Smillie was never happier than, spanner or hammer in hand, working under a broken piece of machinery or driving a cultivator of some sort.

Mr Doig said: “He was kind and generous, probably to a fault, and he was a good friend to those in his circle who found themselves in need of his help.”

Speeding up resistant gene search

A leap has been made in the world of resistance markers thanks to collaborative work between scientists at the James Hutton Institute and the Sainsbury Laboratory, said molecular diagnostician and potato breeder Vanessa Young, of James Hutton’s commercial arm.

Speaking on the James Hutton stand at BP2021, Ms Young said this new diagnostic tool, named dRensSeq, meant that the time potato breeders needed to develop and test parental material with resistance to pests, such as late blight (phytophthora infestans), would be reduced.

“Using dRenSeq we can pinpoint disease resistance within varieties and breeding lines and this will help to identify good parents to produce improved commercial varieties,” she said.

Together with her team, using genetic markers they had been incorporating late blight resistance originating from wild potato species such as solanum venturii, solanum bulbocastanum and solanum berthaultii into their parental improvement programme.

Research is also ongoing for dual potato cyst nematode (PCN) resistance for the two types found in Britain, globodera rostochiensis and globodera pallida.

On the stand were some of the potential varietal parents that had genes stacked from some of the current varieties which have different PCN resistance genes, such as Innovator and Vales Everest. Combining these genes should confer robust resistance, said Ms Young.

She explained that for late blight resistance, rather than sequencing the genome to search for certain traits demanded for breeding material, the research team have used dRenSeq technology to develop a new generation of molecular markers (KASP).

Potato breeder, Drummond Todd, added: “We have a range of new parental material with key agronomic traits suited to the different markets. Being able to ensure that these also have strong resistance, particularly for PCN, we are better able to breed new varieties for our clients with high product yield but that also fit well with their sustainability agenda.”

Consultancy to fine-tune store efficiency

Potato Storage Insight, a new storage research consultancy was showcased at BP2021.

Founded by Adrian Cunnington – who was head of Sutton Bridge Crop Storage Research (SBCSR) for more than 30 years – the company will provide specialist, independent support and advice to the potato industry.

Services will include site visits and assessment of storage facilities, troubleshooting, help with the design of new-build, training and development for store managers. In addition, growers and store managers can sign up for a new monthly newsletter with timely tips and advice.

Adrian said: “Effective store management is all about successfully delivering the best possible quality crop to market, so identifying threats and then making plans to mitigate them is crucial.

“We will be here to help growers achieve this across all sectors, whether it is on a small family farm or a new multi-million pound new complex.”

SBCSR was closed in 2021 and is currently being sold by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB).

New insecticide targets aphids

Axalion, a systemic insecticide with a new mode of action which is highly effective against sucking pests, such as aphids, is expected to be available for the 2024 season, announced Paul Goddard, BASF’s business development manager for potatoes and speciality crops.

Aphid control is particularly important to the potato industry because the pests are vectors for virus with major implications for quality and yields. These viruses can be persistent (e.g. potato leaf roll virus) or non-persistent (including leaf mosaic virus, and potyviruses such as PVA, PVV and PVY).

Speaking at BP2021, Mr Goddard said: “Axalion has a brand new mode of action (dimpropyridaz) which moves up through the xylem in the plant and stops aphids feeding within two hours, which is excellent for stopping persistent viruses.”

He explained that aphids could carry persistent, or non-persistent viruses. Persistent viruses, were retained in the stomach and once infected, the aphid remained so for life. The aphids tend to be those that live in colonies, often on the new growth.

Virus particles are passed to new hosts once an aphid has settled to feed, beyond the speculative probing that is all that is required to pass a non-persistent virus to host.

“At a time when insecticide options are in decline – we have lost almost 60% of the products we had 20 years ago – Axalion is a much-needed addition to the toolbox for the prevention of persistent virus, particularly in seed potatoes.”

Trials in Scotland in non-persistent viruses have been examining the efficacy of foliar applications of oils and purging strips planted alongside crops. The strips work as a means of cleaning the stylet before the aphid lands on the potato crop, whilst the oils have the potential to clog the stylus.

Further research is being undertaken with Scottish Agronomy on the control of non-persistent viruses, such as potyvirus Y, Mr Goddard added.