Duane Falk: In pursuit of the perfect potato

Duane Falk now revels in a pastime he once shunned as a full-time job.

Decades ago, the plant geneticist turned down a position as an agronomist with Frito Lay that many recent university graduates would have jumped at.

But he decided early on potatoes weren’t for him – they required too much digging.

“Suddenly it didn’t seem like such a good job after all,” he says with a smile.

The irony of that statement is not lost on Falk as he stands in one of several potato fields on his 85-acre farm in former Erin Township, southwest of Hillsburgh. His largest field boasts about 60 plots, half of which contain potential new spud varieties.

“Most won’t make it … there’s just so many things that can go wrong,” he said.

Some breeds are susceptible to disease, are too small, die early, can’t fight off weeds or simply won’t make good mashed potatoes, which the University of Guelph professor confesses are his favourite.  

Breeding cereal crops – wheat, barley and oats – may be his “real” job at the university, but Falk seems in his element on the farm.

“This is just for fun,” he said. “Potatoes are the hobby … wheat is just a day job.”

The trick – what consumes his efforts on the farm – is finding a hardy variety that is pleasing to the eye and the taste buds.

And considering he inherited his breeding material from the late Gary Johnston,  who discovered one of the most popular potato varieties in the world, the Yukon Gold, Falk will likely reach his goal – if he hasn’t already.

He thinks he may be on to something with the Golden Blush variety, which first appeared spontaneously almost a decade ago in a plot of Ruby Gold potatoes, another variety first developed by Johnston.

“I kind of got excited be­cause it’s not just different, but better,” he said of the Golden Blush, a pink potato with red eyes and yellow flesh (Ruby Golds are red with yellow flesh).

But it’s not just colour alone that differentiates the two. Falk’s trials show the Golden Blush is 20% higher yielding than its predecessor and, “My wife says they taste even better.”

He notes the Golden Blush is a likely candidate for registration someday, which is the first step to widespread commercial sales in Canada and beyond.

“I cannot explain it,”?he said with a smile of what accounts for the differences between it and the Ruby Gold. “Sometimes you get lucky.”

Falk explained the genetics of potatoes are very complex, but once he gets a variety he likes, it is very easy to reproduce.

Unlike plants such as barley, which multiply by seed only, potatoes can multiply through vegetative means, he said. Plants on his farm are grown from true potato seeds as well as virtual clones grown from the eyes of certain tubers.

“I’m getting [plants] that are more and more fertile,” he said.  

The rows of spuds are as varied in size – there’s “finger potatoes” and Red Marbles, whose names give away their shape – as they are in colour, which ranges from yellow to pink, red and even blue. Other notable breeds include Chief­tain, Davina, Sapphire, Ida Red and one each from South Am­erica and Hungary.

The texture, size and shape makes them each perfect for one type of prepared potato or another, whether it’s french fries, chips, baked, mashed or for salad.

Despite Falk’s classification as a “hobby farm,” the Erin property does yield some income – not quite enough to pay the taxes, he says. He does research for a Swedish company and also for the University of Saskatchewan. He also sells a few spuds commercially, though many are given away to friends and a lot are stored in the basement of his shed at the farm.

Much has changed since Falk turned down that Frito Lay job all those years ago, but one constant has been how comfortable he is in a farm setting.

He was born in Minnesota and grew up in Montana, where his parents regularly sent him to his grandparents’ farm. At age 15, he went to work on neighbouring farms; a job he would keep while earning a degree in chemical engineering at Montana State University.

“Then I saw the light,” he said with a smile of changing career paths.

Realizing the benefits of growing his own food and of having a safer day job, he decided to earn his masters degree in wheat genetics at Montana State.

In 1977, he came to this area, where he lived for five years and earned his PhD in haploid wheat at the University of Guelph. While living in the city he also met his future wife, Frebis Hoffmeyer.

In 1982, both obtained jobs in New Zealand, where they worked and lived for over three years. In 1986, Falk was offered a faculty position at the  University of Guelph, so the couple moved to a rural home east of Arkell.

“We’ve basically been here ever since,” he said.

He tries not to gloat while  explaining he’s likely experienced twice as many southern Ontario summers as winters since he came back to teach at Guelph – thanks to a number of sabbaticals, including to Aus­tralia for six months at a time.

Hoffmeyer also works at the University of Guelph as an assistant program counsellor in the economics department.

“She knows how to make money, I just know how to farm,” he said with a laugh.

Falk is often joined by Hoffmeyer during his evening and weekend trips to the farm in the summer.

They’ve been known some evenings to drag out the barbecue and enjoy a quiet meal on the shed porch.

Right now the Erin property is a bit of a getaway.

Even when he’s working in his potato fields, Falk said he doesn’t really use any of the information he imparts to his university students, and his work with potatoes requires but a fraction of the note taking that working with cereal crops does.

“That’s why it’s still fun,” he said.

The plan is to move from Arkell to the Erin Township farm within a year. Falk said he and Hoffmeyer plan to “live off the grid,” relying on the wind and the sun to power their yet-to-be-built dream home.

It’s part of the same mentality that led to his refusal to apply pesticides, despite the constant threat of potato beetles, which caused “devastating” damage his first few years at the farm.

“I didn’t want to poison my own environment,” he said, alluding to his eventual move to the property. “We choose to do no harm.”

And thus far, Falk’s “own version of organics,” has paid off. He said the relatively small size of his potato fields, as well as the long grass that surrounds them and the area’s natural predators, all combine to keep relatively clean plants that otherwise would be overrun with potato beetles.

But even problems with pests and late blight can be a positive in the end. After all, the goal is to produce the most hardy varieties possible.

“To try and enhance that characteristic,” he said, noting the plants that survived last year’s late blight, which was bad, will be cloned in the hopes of maintaining that survival trait.

Thus far the 2010 crop is flourishing.

“I’ve never had plants this big,” Falk said.

Right now he’s concentrating on harvesting this year’s crop, which will last until late October.

Beyond that, he just wants to continue carrying on the legacy handed to him by Johnston, a potato legend of sorts. If everything works out, at some point Falk will register a variety or two with the government, then sell seeds to producers, who will pay him a royalty.

Not bad for a guy who once scoffed at the idea of growing potatoes.