This year, I am introducing tissue culture plantlets as an option for some of my varieties. I have been working toward this as a goal since the beginning of the company. I use tissue culture to maintain varieties and clean them of diseases, but I have done this on a very small scale and with inadequate equipment and facilities. With the completion of a new lab, I now have the necessary facilities to expand production beyond what I need for my own purposes. There are a lot of exciting benefits with this development:
- Disease free materials: Tissue culture plantlets are produced by dividing plants maintained in sterile cultures in the lab. Generally, I have tested the initial cultures to ensure that they are disease free. Because there is no contact with soil, insects, or other plants, there is no possibility of introducing pests or diseases when you choose plantlets.
- Diversity: I am able to offer more varieties this way, because I can produce plantlets for varieties even when I am not growing them in the field that year. This makes it possible to offer varieties that I am not currently using for breeding or that do not sell well enough to warrant space in the field. This means that I will be able to offer the obscure/low demand products much more regularly.
- Reliability: I am able to offer plantlets regardless of what happens in the field. If blight should wipe out my potatoes, as happened in 2021, I can still offer those varieties as plantlets.
- Flexible timing: I can produce plantlets at any time of year with a six week lead time and, under normal circumstances, I would not expect to ever run out of stock, although the lead time might increase if demand is high. Want to start plants in July? No problem.
The main disadvantage to plantlets is cost. I have tried a variety of methods and materials to get the price down, but the labor, materials, and shipping cost don’t allow for a price lower than $30. For $30, you get five plantlets, from which I expect most people to get three plants to maturity.
Plantlets are also obviously more difficult than tubers. The small plants are much like seedlings, small and vulnerable. You can just chuck a tuber in the ground and walk away, but a plantlet requires transplant to a pot and several weeks of care. When growing from plantlets, you are really producing seed tubers for the following year. If you grow three plantlets to maturity, given that most varieties produce at least 10 tubers per plant, you could usually expect to have 30 seed tubers to plant the following year. This is a trade off. The initial production is slow, but because you are starting disease free, you will be able to grow from your own tubers for more generations with better results.
As this is the first year for this kind of product, I expect there to be some bumps in the road. This is an experimental product. I expect a six week lead time, but some varieties may take longer. I will be sending plantlets in several different forms of packaging, including several types of tubes and bags to see which hold up the best.
Not everything will be available this year, but I will continue to add them as time allows and I hope to eventually have the entire collection available as plantlets. Potatoes will be first (several varieties are available for order now), then ulluco. Oca, mashua, and yacon will probably come next year, although a few varieties might be available this year if things go well.
It will take a few years of experience to see how much demand I can handle, but I like to imagine a future where plantlets are the primary product that I offer for clonal varieties. That would free me up from the time consuming and expensive practice of disease testing plants in the field and every bit of time that I can free up goes back into breeding.