Interview with Amy Charkowski
A University of Wisconsin professor in the Department of Plant Pathology, Amy Charkowski directs the Wisconsin Seed Potato Certification Program that includes a tissue culture laboratory and an early generation seed farm that produces 30,000 cwt. of seed potatoes annually.
It also encompasses an inspection program that certifies seed produced by over 20 farms and investigates organically approved control methods for pests and pathogens important in organic seed potato production.
Born in Madison, Wisconsin, Amy holds a B.S. degree in biochemistry and plant pathology from UW-Madison (1993) and a Ph.D. degree in plant pathology from Cornell University (1998). In 2011, Amy won the coveted 2011 American Phytopathological Society (APS) Syngenta Award because of her countless accomplishments in plant pathology.
Amy serves on numerous grant panels and holds leadership positions in APS, the international seed potato research community and her UW-Madison department. Additionally, she piloted a successful international project furthering the development of quality potato seed production in North Africa and the Middle East.
Amy enhances plant pathology’s future as well as its present. She has trained eight graduate students, five post-docs, dozens of undergraduate and high school students and a steady stream of international scientists seeking the latest techniques and ideas.
According to Amy, “I have been interested in biology, and specifically in plants as long as I can remember. When I was an undergrad, I worked in a plant virology lab, for Dr. Doug Maxwell while taking classes in microbiology.”
“From a scientific viewpoint, plant-associated microbes are among the most fascinating and easiest to study,” Amy continues. “The microbes can be very sophisticated in how they manipulate plants and we can also experimentally manipulate both plants and microbes to an extent that cannot be done with animal-associated microbes.”
An avid reader and outdoor enthusiast, Amy hikes, bikes and kayaks throughout Wisconsin and the world. “While most of my hiking and all of my biking and kayaking is in North America, some of it has been a little crazy,” says Amy. “Once, my husband and I biked from Madison to Ithaca, NY on a tandem. What were we thinking?”
What led you into the world of plant pathology and plant-microbes, particularly in regard to specializing in areas of potato production?
When I was quite young, I visited Epcot with my family and saw hydroponic plants for the first time, and was amazed. At the time, I wanted to be an astronaut and thought that working with plants might help me get to Mars. Sadly, this plan has been on hold for quite a while.
Then, in high school, I had an excellent high school science teacher, Marilyn Hansen, who helped students find volunteer positions at UW-Madison labs. She found a spot for me with Dr. Steve Slack, who was one of my predecessors in the seed potato certification program. I stayed interested in plant pathology and studied bean and pepper diseases as an undergraduate at Madison and as a graduate student at Cornell.
After graduate school, I worked briefly with the USDA Agricultural Research Service in food safety research at a research station. However, I really missed being on a land grant campus, so I applied for this position. Fortunately, I was hired and have enjoyed working with the seed potato program ever since.
UW-Madison labs run a lot like small independent businesses, with our product being knowledge. We only do grant-supported research, mainly driven by available federal, state and private funding sources that are appropriate for potato research.
Scientifically, I am most interested in how microbes manipulate plants to cause symptoms and obtain nutrients. My practical research goal is to try to provide farmers with better disease management strategies.
It is very clear to me that several talented teachers and professors changed my life for the better. For this reason, I am a strong believer in the positive role that public schools and land grant universities can play in improving peoples’ lives and I have tried to “pay it forward” since joining UW-Madison.
Why do you believe that the seed certification program and buying certified seed are vitally important to the potato grower’s overall success?
The number one reason for certification is that seed potato health and variety cannot be accurately judged by just looking at the potato tuber. The multiple inspections that each seed lot receives result in a seed crop that is healthier than it would be otherwise and, as a result, the seed potato buyer will profit from planting certified seed.
Seed potato prices are interesting because they are usually less than the loss a farmer will face if he or she does not plant certified seed.
For example, if a Wisconsin farmer buys a large quantity of certified Russet Norkotah seed that has a 5% Potato Virus Y (PVY) incidence and grows the plants through early fall in order to get high yields, we would expect aphids to spread the virus throughout the crop in late August and throughout September. This late season spread of virus is not a problem for yield or quality, as long as the potatoes are not replanted the following year.
Based on decades of research, if the farmer saved seed from this crop and replanted it, we would expect it to have at least a 50% virus incidence, which would result in at least a 50 cwt/acre loss of yield to the farmer plus reduced quality in the potatoes harvested. The cost of this yield loss from virus is roughly equivalent to buying certified seed potatoes.
If the farmer had chosen instead to buy certified seed, he or she would likely obtain a higher yield and better quality potatoes. This scenario does not take into account the many other risks, such as storage losses, variety mixture, bacterial ring rot or late blight that the farmer will also avoid by buying certified seed. This is why we say, “Certified seed doesn’t cost, it pays.”
Certified seed programs also have an interesting and under-appreciated economic benefit to the local community. These programs cost around $30 per acre, which is far less expensive than any spray program.
Unlike spray programs, the funds that pay for seed certification remain almost entirely in the community growing the seed potatoes. Therefore, not only does certification provide farmers with improved disease management, it also supports the local rural economy.
Can you describe some of the new and exciting potato-growing programs you have worked on or are working on currently?
This is an amazing time to be a biologist because of conceptual and technical advances that are changing how we look at the world around us. To me, the three most exciting advances are improvements in the ability of researchers to understand soil microbiology, advancements in potato genomics that allow us to finally discover how potatoes respond to diseases and to their environment, and that we are finally able to employ unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to help monitor agricultural experiments.
My lab is closely tied to the seed potato program. Therefore, one of our goals is to search out the most advanced information and methods and apply them at the farm level as quickly and economically, as possible.
My current PhD students are working mainly on disease resistance genes for important diseases such as PVY and common scab. They are also trying to understand more fully, the mechanisms bacteria use to cause soft rot in potato.
I also mentor an MS student, who is examining beneficial soil bacteria and looking at traits that these bacteria share with pathogens. Finally, Ruth Genger and I run an organic potato production and variety trialing program that collaborates with at least 30 organic farms in the Midwest. One of the main goals of this program is to find ways to lower the barriers to the use of certified seed potatoes on organic farms.
What recommendations do you have for growers to produce healthy seed potatoes?
The Wisconsin seed potato growers are experienced farmers and already do an excellent job of producing healthy seed potatoes. The most common problems we see now in seed potato certification occur when farmers are unable to isolate their early generation seed potato fields from fields with high virus incidence .This can only be solved if farmers coordinate where they plant with their neighbors or be sure not to cause this problem on their own farms.
There are, of course other seed potato diseases that cause problems. I am concerned that we will see future increases in soil-borne viruses in our state. We also have constant problems with common scab.
Because of changes in plant breeding technologies, such as the availability of potato genome sequences, I think we will start seeing swifter progress in potato breeding that will help with some of these challenges.
For example, I recently saw promising results with new russet lines, such as Teton Russet and Fortress Russet, which seem effectively to resist PVY, the most common virus problem in potato. Similarly, Shelley Jansky’s lab has identified a very promising source of common scab resistance from wild potatoes that may prove valuable to potato breeders.
Where do you see certified seed and seed potato certification programs developing in the future?
I believe that certification will change in the next decades in at least three ways. First, if genetically modified potatoes similar to those currently being trialed by Simplot become widespread, most of the disease problems we are concerned with in seed potato certification could be reduced or eliminated.
Second, I think technology will simplify inspections and allow farmers to conduct most of the inspections themselves. For example, farmers could collect spectral data, which is useful for monitoring disease, variety and quality, from detectors on their spray booms and harvesters. The farmers could provide or sell this data, to help estimate seed crop health along with the seed potatoes. If proven beneficial in predicting seed crop health, this sort of data collection could replace many of the activities of seed potato certification.
Finally, our trading partners keep increasing laboratory testing requirements. Just like agriculture, laboratory testing is inefficient on a small scale, but quite efficient on a larger scale. Unfortunately, few seed potato-producing states are large enough to develop efficient testing laboratories.
In addition, there are no private testing laboratories, such as Agdia, approved by the USDA for seed potato testing. If laboratory-testing requirements continue to increase, potato farmers can increase efficiency and decrease costs by cooperating across state lines to develop regional laboratories rather than relying on state-based programs.
What challenges and obstacles do you encounter within your programs currently?
The biggest challenge is always acquiring accurate information that we can use to make the best possible decisions. We put a lot of effort into obtaining production and disease-related information before making changes in our program while also collecting data to evaluate and refine any changes we make.
Another challenge we have with the certification program is the distance we must work across since it influences our ability to communicate and understand each person’s responsibilities and job challenges.
The certification program includes my research lab and a tissue culture lab, which are located in two different buildings in Madison, an office housing the certification program in Antigo and an early generation seed farm in Rhinelander. The jobs at each of these locations are specialized, but also interdependent and it is important for all of the people involved to communicate effectively and to be able to accept useful ideas from any other person in the program. We all try for this ideal, but in reality, it is a difficult goal to meet.
Finally, over the past decade, we have seen new diseases and insect problems emerge in North America at a faster rate than ever before. Each seed potato producing state in the US has responded to these challenges in a different way and it is difficult to respond to the ever-changing rules for seed potato production.
Overall, what recommendations do you have that will help growers further their success?
This is an easy question! Growers should always plant certified seed, and whenever possible, plant certified seed grown in Wisconsin. By planting locally grown seed, farmers greatly reduce the risk of bringing in new strains of seed- or soil-borne pathogens into Wisconsin. Many of our new pest and disease challenges are tied directly to imports of seed potatoes or other plants.
It is also a hard question since each year brings new challenges and each farm is dealing with a different set of strengths and weaknesses. The most important general recommendation I have is to continue to collaborate with the potato research group at UW-Madison. We develop our research programs based on ideas and observations shared by many farmers. Wisconsin farmers have had several successes based on specific recommendations made by the UW potato researchers.
Do you expect the recent budget cuts proposed for the UW to affect the seed potato certification program potato research team?
Yes, these budget cuts will directly and negatively affect both our certification program and potato research in general.
A few years ago, the Wisconsin potato and vegetable farmers had a long-range planning meeting and one of the outcomes was a re-stating of the importance of the relationship between the growers and UW researchers. I was very pleased with the outcome of this meeting and the renewed energy we all felt toward building on this long-term partnership. That is why I cannot stress enough how vitally important it is that Wisconsin’s potato and vegetable growers and WPVGA realize the impact of the proposed UW budget cuts and what they can do to call attention to the seriousness of the funding cuts we face.
Public statements that substantiate the benefits that UW faculty provide in supporting potato and vegetable production or the state’s investment in the Wisconsin Idea, in regard to extension and seed potato certification, are extremely crucial if we all want to protect the synergistic partnership we enjoy.
It took a lot of effort to build these partnering efforts and if ended, even for a short while, it will take a very long time to rebuild them.
The state budget cuts affect only the UW teaching and extension budgets and we cannot shift funds from research grants or fee-based programs, such as the seed certification program, to cover this shortfall, which means researcher responsibilities will change drastically. I have seen news articles and editorials claiming that this budget cut is only 2.5% and not 13%, but these claims are based on a limited understanding of the UW budget and how impossible it is to shift funds between missions.
Our departmental budget includes the fee-based seed potato program and several large research grants, so the percent cut for our total departmental budget looks small on the surface. However, the state funding cut is entirely from our teaching and extension budgets, which are much smaller than our research and seed program budgets. We cannot legally or ethically meet our teaching and extension goals by simply shifting funds from the seed program or research grants to cover teaching costs. If we teach more to cover these cuts, then we must to cut back on extension, which, unlike research, does not generate funds.
I am afraid that crop science research at the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences is particularly vulnerable to these cuts based on three observations.
First, crop science research is costly compared to other types of research because of the wide range of equipment and research stations we maintain for research. The state budget is the primary funding unit for these resources and cutting this funding will reduce our ability to conduct fieldwork on potato and other vegetable crops. Because there is not a corresponding increase in grower or federal funds, this will result in fewer field-based projects and far fewer students trained in applied agricultural research at UW-Madison.
Currently, only a handful of universities, all of which are land grant colleges, conduct extensive crop science research. Some of these universities, such as Cornell and Berkeley, cut back dramatically on crop science research due to state budget cuts. Private universities, even very wealthy ones, do not have crop science programs, because they are expensive to run, only attract a small number of students and do not generate self-sustaining funds. I expect that the UW budget cuts will result in the same eventual outcome in Wisconsin that already occurred at UC-Berkeley and Cornell University. If we are unable to offer education and training in agricultural sciences to the next generation of students and farmers, this will greatly affect Wisconsin agriculture.
A second reason why proposed budget cuts will impact potato and vegetable research, ironically, involves the popularity of biology majors among students. Now the most popular major at UW-Madison, most of the advanced biology courses are taught in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. This large increase in the number of students greatly affects our college, already hard hit by significant budget and faculty member cuts. Meeting these spiraling student demands, is difficult especially since our teaching loads already increased significantly over the past decade. The proposed cuts would require researchers who currently assist with the certification program and conduct potato and vegetable research and extension, to teach courses instead. Obviously, classroom teaching is a worthwhile endeavor. However, we cannot be on a farm trying to figure out why seed did not emerge or discussing late blight with master gardeners and be in a classroom at the same time. Therefore, I expect that the amount of time the potato research team spends on extension and outreach will drop noticeably.
Finally, many other states are investing in education, which means that it will be difficult to compete with other universities for high quality faculty. However, I suspect we will not need to worry about competing for crop sciences faculty. The unfortunate reality is that to survive these budget cuts, the college will hire fewer faculty members. For the few faculty members who are hired, the college will likely focus on acquiring those who can bring in large grants (usually tied to biomedical research) and who will teach large classes. Unfortunately, hiring researchers to focus on potato and vegetable production and outreach will probably drop to a much lower priority within the college simply because we will not be able to afford to make this choice.
In closing, what do like most about the career path you have chosen?
I have one of the best jobs available and I feel very fortunate to be blessed with this opportunity. Every year, I meet interesting people from around the world, I learn fascinating things about biology, I travel to places that most people never get to visit and I have the opportunity to mentor and teach smart and motivated students.
More important than these experiences, though, is helping people meet their own goals. For example, it is a wonderful feeling when a student accepts an offer for a job and you know that you helped them gain the experience and knowledge they needed to qualify for their chosen career.
Similarly, I enjoy seeing the certification results from Wisconsin, which are often among the best in North America, and I am grateful to be able to participate in a program that helps maintain crop health.