There are many different plant species where Luther Burbank was responsible for innovative creations. Potato is one of these. Luther Burbank’s potato breeding must be seen from an historical perspective. Potatoes were found in South America by Spanish Explorers in the Central Andes. Introduced more as a botanical curiosity ≈1570, the potato appears to have been grown in gardens and recognized as a nutritive food as judged by a letter written by Saint Teresa of Avila, founder of the Barefoot Carmelites, who wrote of their restorative traits when she ate them while in ill health.
In 1843, starting in North America, a mysterious disease began afflicting potato in the northeast of the United States. Two years later, starting on the continent, in Belgium, the same type of fast-moving epidemic started early and then appeared throughout a large area in Ireland (Bourke, 1993). This led to an almost total potato crop failure in 1845 and by the fall of 1846, after another crop failure, an all-encompassing food scarcity. Food stores disappeared in pockets, especially in western Ireland, subsequently vanishing throughout many parts of Ireland. In the previous 55 years, Ireland’s population had risen from 2 to 8 million at least partly the result of the success and succor of potato as a crop. Infrastructure was ill-prepared to address famine, and as many thousands of people died, others, with their last remaining energy, took to the road seeking food. Human diseases appeared, foremost among these cholera. Science understood neither the fast-moving, moisture-loving, air-dispersed late blight nor the drinking waterborne cholera, which vanquished the hunger-debilitated population with spectacular rapidity.
Wherever rumors of food stores emerged, hordes of desperate people would arrive and break into supposed food warehouses. Violence and death ensued, while food became unavailable, at any price in ever widening regions. Meanwhile in England, a debate raged on the appropriate response to the famine. It was one of the first philosophical clashes on the value of welfare to help the poor. There was a prevailing socioreligious standpoint that the massive death occurring in Ireland was an act of God. Above all, harmony had been lost in Ireland and its return was best left to natural processes. When Parliament finally attempted to purchase shiploads of grain for Ireland, the process was much delayed and resulted in a worldwide increase in grain commodity prices (Kelly, 2012).
In the end it is estimated that 1 million Irish perished and 1.5 million emigrated mostly to the United States. Emigration took place during and after the famine. Ireland has yet to recover previous population levels. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the 19th century, the Irish potato famine was caused by the oomycete Phytophthora infestans. The potato varieties of the time in Ireland were completely susceptible (Salaman, 1949). It still is the most serious disease of potato worldwide.
It was in this context, and considering that potato breeding was in private hands in 1850, that the Reverend Chauncey Goodrich undertook his calling to fight hunger on receiving potatoes from the Panamanian Consulate, which came with the name “Chili,” perhaps denoting the country of origin as Chile. Out of this exotic germplasm Goodrich selected, from openpollinated fruits, first, ‘Rough Purple Chili’, then ‘Garnet Chili’, and subsequently another breeder, Albert Bresee, released a seedling derived from ‘Garnet Chili’, which he named ‘Early Rose’ (Goodrich, 1863a, 1863b; Plaisted and Hoopes, 1989; Smith, 2009). At this time the greatest goal of plant breeders was to breed varieties more resistant to disease, probably referring to late blight.
The origin of ‘Burbank's Seedling’, a story filled with unbelievably good fortune, evokes the incredulity of any plant breeder. Luther Burbank as a young man in Massachusetts took on potato as one of his first plant business projects and discovered a fruit in his mother’s ‘Early Rose’ garden patch. This in itself was almost unheard of in the non-fruiting Early Rose cultivar. Carefully marking the fruit, he waited for it to mature. The fruit initially was lost, but was found after 3 full days of searching. Yielding a scant 23 seeds, each of them was carefully germinated and transplanted to his garden. After nurturing each plant to full maturity, he harvested them and made his assessment. Of the 23 seedlings, two were unusual and outstanding. After a second year of propagation, No. 15 was the sole selection, offering an astounding yield of large tubers, good storability, and very good eating quality (Dreyer, 1993). By today’s standards the derivatives of Goodrich’s potatoes were not particularly resistant as tested in modern resistance trials, but the fact that ‘Russet Burbank’, a later sport of ‘Burbank's Seedling’, was not particularly susceptible to late blight might have been an achievement at its highest level (Inglis et al., 1996) (Table 1). Although it is often said that no resistance to late blight was present in varieties of the day in 1845 nor in varieties released for more than three-fourths of a century afterward (Spooner et al., 2005), modern studies place ‘Russet Burbank’ in an intermediate susceptible status of resistance, relative to many other potato varieties. Not a matter for superlatives, neither resistant nor very susceptible, it and its relatives may have been notable for a greater, albeit slight, abatement of disease than that offered by any other cultivar of the time. Therefore, the overwhelming use of ‘Early Rose’, ‘Burbank's Seedling's’ immediate maternal ancestor, as a parent in breeding programs in Europe and North America may have had a basis in a conspicuous ability to transmit some resistance to late blight to the progenies (Reader, 2008).
Area under the disease progress curve (AUDPC) on exposure to a field source of late blight (Phytophthora infestans) pathotypes identified after 1990 in Mount Vernon, WA.z
This could explain the longevity and international dissemination of ‘Early Rose’, which was used extensively in breeding in Europe. In fact, it is difficult to find a pedigree that does not include ‘Early Rose’ as an ancestor in the early 20th century (Plaisted and Hoopes, 1989).
“My Dear Sir,
I have given you great fame by attaching your name to the potato and spreading it through the length and breath (sic) of the land. I purchased the Early Ohio at just about the same price I gave you for your seedling, did not give the originator’s name to it, and have made greater sale of this than the Burbank.
As to the profit of selling potatoes in my business, with the cost of advertising and handling and loss by freezing and the filling out of orders comes with the opening of spring, just when we are heel over head with filling seed orders, causing us such a week behind hand I have half resolved more than once to(forsake) the whole potato business as unprofitable and a great nuisance .You mistake in inferring that all this notoriety upon Burbank means money for me. It rather means fame for you. The more generally it is advertised, the more completely it is taken out of my hands.
Gregory had allowed Burbank to keep 10 tubers, which he used to start the cultivar in California. It spread on the west coast of North America where in 1914 it was stated to be worth $17 million (Burbank, 1914). There is no evidence that ‘Burbank's Seedling’ was remunerative to Burbank despite the potential. It was a casualty to its ready vegetative propagation without legal means to recover royalties. Luther Burbank himself attributed the discovery of a russet skin mutant to Lou Sweet, a Colorado farmer, in 1914 (Burbank, 1914). However, it appears to be clear now that the russet sport was discovered earlier and called ‘Netted Gem’ (Bethke and Donnelly, 2014). Newspaper articles and seed catalogs place this in the year 1895. It was officially introduced in 1902 in the L.L. Mays seed catalog. Today the name ‘Netted Gem’ is used in Canada and ‘Russet Burbank’ in the United States and elsewhere. Eventually ‘Burbank's Seedling’ disappeared and ‘Russet Burbank’ increased in acreage, especially in the Intermountain West.
‘Russet Burbank’ found market acceptance heretofore unknown in potato cultivars. In the Pacific Northwest, ‘Russet Burbank’ comprised 85% of the crop in Washington State, destined largely for processing.
Ray Croc, who undertook the expansion of McDonald's restaurants on a franchise model, started with one restaurant in San Bernardino, CA. He made an interesting discovery early in the process that proved essential to McDonald's French fries’ reputation for excellence. First he determined that ‘Russet Burbank’ potatoes needed to sit and slightly dehydrate after delivery. Second, he found that fries were most appealing if they went through a two-step cooking process. The fries were half-cooked in hot oil and allowed to sit. The second step could be a short oil fry that imparted appropriate texture, taste, and unique mouth feel. All of this was done with ‘Russet Burbank’ as the model raw product. Continuous use of ‘Russet Burbank’ ensured exclusive preference for it as the raw product that most frequently performed the best. Processing innovations were always accomplished on ‘Russet Burbank’. At first Ray Croc manufactured his once-cooked product, shipped in his raw potatoes, and stored on site (Croc, 1985). He found a willing industrial partner, J.R. Simplot Company, which pre-cooked the fries and sent them frozen in easily storable boxes to the restaurants. So successful was this that the brand McDonald's became synonymous with the most delicious French fries in the business. Ray Croc eventually bought out the McDonald Brothers and presided over the expansion of the McDonald's brand with construction of tens of thousands of new restaurants on a franchise model (CNBC, 2007; Croc, 1985). Today almost all quick service restaurants receive parfried frozen fries from potato processors, which the restaurants finish off with a second fry. Today 33% of McDonald's sales are French fries, estimated at 7 billion pounds per year. A highly trained tasting team tries out new varieties every year, and the lack of new recommendations characterizes a static situation, which protects ‘Russet Burbank’s’ retention of such a large portion of the market (Love, 1995). A cultivar acceptable as a McFry® must perform in a narrow range in the following list of characters:
- Texture external crusty surface, internal soft but not mushy;
- Optimum absorption of oil. McDonald's has switched to a healthier Canola® vegetable oil for frying, the result of close collaboration with Cargill researchers (Cargill, La Crosse, WI);
- Percent limp units (or fries that have lost their stiffness and become soft) at a specified time after frying;
- Retention of freshly fried taste and texture after a specified number of minutes postfry;
- A mix of strip lengths that occupy a certain volume and stay below a specified weight. Strips that are similar in length tend to fill the serving container with too high a weight; and
- Retention of good fry quality after 8 months of storage.
At this writing only four varieties are acceptable for the McFry brand: ‘Russet Burbank’, ‘Shepody’, ‘Ranger Russet’, and ‘Umatilla Russet’ (CNBC, 2007).
Best, G.W. 1870 Best’s potato book. Reprint Repressed Publishing, Provo, UT
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Inglis, D.A., Johnson, D.A., Legard, D.E., Fry, W.E. & Hamm, P.B. 1996 Relative resistances of potato clones in response to new and old populations of Phytophthora infestans Journal of Plant Disease 80 575 578
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Worrell, S.K. 2013 Remembering James J. H. Gregory: The seed king, philanthropist, man. Family Heritage Publishers, Murray, UT