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Outstanding potato breeder

It would be difficult to overestimate the impact that Harry Kehoe has had on potato breeding in this country over a 40-year period, writes Matt O’Keeffe

Up until his retirement 15 years ago, Harry Kehoe had spent almost his entire career in the pursuit of excellence in terms of breeding improved potato varieties. It is particularly appropriate that the Rathvilly-born agricultural scientist received an honorary doctorate of science from his peers in recent weeks. The citation for the doctorate presented by Harry Kehoe’s alma mater, University College Dublin (UCD), included reference to the fact that he is widely acknowledged as one of the outstanding European plant breeders.
A lifetime of dedication to potato breeding
After qualifying from UCD in 1960, Harry Kehoe worked for a year with the Department of Agriculture on cereal breeding and then as a scientific officer, based at Athenry Agricultural College. He then joined An Foras Talúntais, now Teagasc, at Oakpark, in his native Carlow, initially working on sugar beet breeding. He then applied for the job of leading a potato breeding unit at the Oakpark Research Centre, sensing that there were greater opportunities and challenges in potato tuber research. Thus began a labour of love breeding potato plants, lasting over 40 years, until his retirement in 2003.
Throughout his career Harry worked closely with IPM Potato Group Ltd, and many varieties released during his tenure continue to grow and be successfully marketed in over 40 countries worldwide.
Rooster and Cara
During his career, Harry Kehoe and his research team, based at Teagasc Oakpark, bred more than 35 commercial potato varieties. The most outstanding and well-known of these are the Rooster and Cara varieties. Since its launch in 1991, Rooster has become the dominant potato on the Irish market, accounting for 60 per cent of all potato sales. It is instantly recognisable with its reddish skin colour, and owes much of its enduring popularity to the fact that it has all of the necessary potato characteristics that Irish consumers like in their potatoes. Harry explains: “We set out to breed a potato that had a floury texture, excellent yielding potential, a wide choice of cooking options and strong disease resistance. The Rooster variety fulfilled all of those characteristics.” The Cara potato variety has been the most successful potato variety bred in Oak Park in terms of tonnages grown and consumer popularity internationally. Forty years after its release, it is still being grown in a range of countries including Egypt, the Canary Islands and the UK, where it is still particularly popular, accounting for up to forty per cent of the market. Cara is also notable as one of the first varieties with strong resistance to the Globodera rostochiensis strain of potato cyst nematode.
Different spuds for different tastes
Curiously, Cara and Rooster have quite different characteristics, and this accounts for their consumer popularity in different markets. While Rooster is ideally suited to the Irish market, the Cara variety wins out in Britain where the preference is for a more waxy potato.
To provide some background to what is involved in potato plant breeding, Harry gives an outline of the research procedures: “Within five years of initiating the breeding programme we were growing between 80,000 and 100,000 potato seedlings at Oakpark every year. After each season only those that display some commercial potential, or have some characteristics that are worth further examination, are retained. It takes about 15 years between the time that a trial on a particular crossbred plant is initiated and final confirmation of the resultant variety as a commercial prospect, with literally millions of seedlings discarded over the years.”
TV soap success for floury Rooster
Even when listed as a commercial entity, it can be a hit-or-miss affair, as Harry Kehoe’s description of the early history of Rooster confirms: “The Rooster variety was launched on the market before Christmas in 1991. It did not sell initially, as Michael Hoey of Country Crest can confirm. However, a few weeks later, the variety featured in an episode of the TV soap, Glenroe, and suddenly the Rooster took off, to the stage where it is still the most popular variety by far on the Irish market.” The reasons for its enduring popularity are not hard to identify. As mentioned earlier, it is a floury potato. It also has a very wide range of uses, including boiling, baking, roasting and chipping. From a producer’s point of view, it has high yield potential and good disease resistance. The Rooster stores well over a long period and it has a tough skin that doesn’t blemish easily during harvesting or subsequent handling. All of those characteristics had to be taken into account by Harry Kehoe and his team when developing the variety over a decade and a half of research.
No potato seed sector
If Harry Kehoe has one big regret, it relates to the virtual absence of seed potato production in Ireland. The reasons why most of the potato tubers used for planting in Ireland are actually grown in Scotland are complex, as Harry outlines.
“At one time there were 13,000 tonnes of Oakpark red varieties exported from Ireland in any one year. Initially, the hope was that seed production would be central to the expansion of the potato sector in Ireland. However, over time, there was a realisation that the seed Roosters, for instance, had to be harvested early to provide the tuber size required. The bonus from producing seed potatoes was not enough to offset the returns in tonnage and price from a longer growing season. So the potential seed market withered away. In comparison, Scottish growers benefitted from an extended growing season that still delivered suitable size seed as well as large tonnages of ware potatoes.”
In pursuit of perfection
Harry Kehoe emphasises the fact that there is no such thing as a perfect potato. He is adamant, however, that the Rooster, because of its suitability to the Irish climate and soil conditions, comes as near as possible to perfection for this particular market.
Given the importance of the potato in global food production, as the fourth major food crop in the world after wheat, rice and maize, Harry Kehoe’s achievements are leaving a lasting legacy around the globe.