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New program simplifies growers’ access to potato varieties

September 16, 2004 By Madeline Fisher

Call it a license to till.

With guidance from Wisconsin’s potato growers, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) has launched a streamlined licensing program for seed potato farmers who wish to cultivate and sell varieties developed by the potato-breeding program at UW–Madison.

Since introducing the licensing program to members of the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association (WPVGA) via a letter in mid-July, WARF, which is UW–Madison’s patenting and licensing organization, has completed five agreements with growers and has another pending.

Growers appear to like the new contract, says Brad Ricker, WARF’s agricultural licensing manager, because it simplifies paperwork, offers the same, reasonable licensing terms to all growers, and has the WPVGA’s stamp of approval.

“This licensing program has been developed to make licensing and growing Wisconsin potatoes a simple and fair transaction,” he says. “We want to get new potato varieties into the marketplace as quickly as possible, without overburdening growers with paperwork or expense.”

In creating the program, Ricker met regularly during the past two years with UW–Madison potato breeders, seed and commercial potato growers, WVPGA staff members and other representatives of the state’s potato industry.

The licensing program specifically targets Wisconsin’s roughly 25 seed potato growers – farmers who produce certified disease-free potato tubers that commercial growers eventually use to sow their crops. The contract requires these WPVGA members to pay a one-time, base fee of $1,000 and a per-acre royalty rate to be set when the agreement is signed. In exchange, farmers receive the right to grow, harvest and sell one of the eight UW–Madison potato varieties currently available for licensing, and can add other varieties for $100 each.

The $1,000 fee is also fully creditable toward future royalty payments, and the agreement remains in effect as long as it continues to include at least one variety, greatly reducing paperwork.

Wisconsin currently produces the nation’s third-largest potato crop behind Idaho and Washington, with an annual value of $150 million. UW–Madison’s potato-breeding program focuses on developing new varieties that specifically serve the needs of the state’s potato industry and grow well under Midwest climate and soil conditions.

Among the most successful potatoes to emerge from the program since it began in the 1940s, are Superior, a variety released for commercial production in 1965, and Snowden, from 1989, one of the most popular chipping potatoes ever. More recent UW–Madison varieties showing particular promise include “Villetta Rose,” a red potato for fresh market and canning; “Mega-chip,” a chipping potato; and “Millennium Russet,” a French fry variety.

Paying a royalty to UW–Madison and WARF in exchange for the right to grow and sell Wisconsin potatoes is a relatively new concept for the state’s potato growers, says Mike Carter, executive director of WPVGA, which represents the interests of nearly 150 grower members across the state.

Still, Wisconsin potato growers believe the licensing program is fair, he reports. They especially appreciate that WARF, as a nonprofit entity, returns the proceeds from the licensing of potatoes to UW–Madison to support research.

“We see this program as an investment,” says Carter. “In the event that the next big potato variety, like Snowden, comes along and is broadly adopted, the money from licensing will go back to the UW–Madison breeding program and will ultimately benefit the growers.”