Your favourite specialty spud isn’t necessarily a genetic descendant of Yukon Gold potatoes.
But in another way, those gourmet potatoes in your supermarket or on your restaurant dinner plate might owe something to that popular named variety developed a half-century ago at the University of Guelph.
Even just naming a potato suggested that “it was special, it tasted better than the average potato,” says plant agriculture technician Vanessa Currie. “It opened the door for the idea of the potato going from just being a potato with no name to something special.”
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the potato bred by Gary Johnston at U of G. In 1966, two years after the University’s establishment, Johnston bred Yukon Gold, which reached Canadian growers in 1981.
Yukon Gold is considered one of the University’s signature achievements. Last year, the Council of Ontario Universities named it among the top five Ontario innovations developed in university research over the past century.
Today less farm acreage is devoted to growing Yukon Gold, and you’ll likely find the yellow-fleshed spud in farmer’s markets and small retailers rather than supermarkets. “The market has moved on,” says Currie.
She still uses it as the “gold standard” in annual variety testing at U of G’s Elora research station. Although Guelph no longer runs its own breeding program, Currie tests new cultivars each summer from potatoes bred elsewhere. For growing traits and cooking uses, she says, “Yukon Gold is our standard that we compare against.”
In another important way, she says, Johnston’s idea — a potato with a name — lives on.
Earlier, a potato was just a potato. “It was sustenance,” says Currie. “Potatoes were something people ate every day.”
After the Second World War, new immigrants arrived in Canada from Europe, particularly Belgium and the Netherlands. They brought with them different tastes.
Currie says Johnston worked to accommodate those changing tastes. In the mid-1900s, that idea was a bit revolutionary.
Today consumers can still buy an ordinary 4.5-kilogram bag of generic potatoes for two dollars. But you can also buy a premium bag weighing a third as much for more than twice the price.
And many of those new potatoes are marketed with monikers that sound more like something in the beauty products aisle rather than the produce aisle.
Referring to a variety sold by one supermarket chain, Currie says, “They wouldn’t have gotten to Strawberry Blonde without Yukon Gold in between. A generation of consumers has grown up thinking of Yukon Gold. Now the bar is raised.”
Johnston died in 2000. A graduate of the Ontario Agricultural College, he took over potato breeding in the former horticultural department in the 1950s. He introduced named cultivars, including Eramosa, Conestoga, Ruby Gold, Royal Gold and Red Gold.
“Some of these varieties didn’t make the potato hit parade probably due to a lack of promotion, scarcity of seed but most of all not being marketed by variety name,” Johnston wrote in a 1992 article. “Yukon Gold was the first Canadian-bred potato variety to be promoted, packaged and marketed with its name right on the pack.”
His successors were Robert Coffin and S. T. Ali-Khan. When the latter retired in 1998, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) ended the Guelph potato-breeding program.
Currie completed her undergrad at U of G in 1989 and began working with the department the following year.
Breeding for consumer tastes extends to other commodities, she adds. As subsequent waves of immigrants have arrived in Canada, they have brought new tastes and demands with them. Guelph researchers have studied so-called ethnic vegetables from bok choy to Canadian ginseng.
Says Currie, “You don’t have to miss things back home.”