A Kilkenny company specialising in clean plant technology is aiming to help develop and grow the Irish seed potato industry.

As a result of Brexit, the EU has banned the importation of seed potato from the UK to Ireland under its plant health legislation.

Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Charlie McConalogue has repeatedly said that he wants to see a domestic seed potato sector develop, but added that it will have to be “industry-led”.

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine’s (DAFM’s) facility at Tops Farm in Raphoe Co. Donegal provides mini tubers to the industry for multiplication in order to produce seed for certification by the DAFM.

It also provides a virus-testing service for the seed potato certification scheme and is also the curator of the national potato gene bank where more than 700 varieties are maintained.

Sweet potato

A Kilkenny-based agri-tech company, which works with the Tops facility, is now set to offer its expertise to help grow the Irish seed potato industry this year.

FitzGerald Nurseries was established in the 1990s and producing young plants has remained its focus ever since.

Image Source: FitzGerald Nurseries

From ornamental plants, the company migrated to plant tissue culture production, acquiring a laboratory in Enniscorthy from where it now develops multiple crops for export.

The business provides farmers and growers in the US, Europe, Japan and most recently Africa, with planting materials for various applications.

In the mid 2000s, the firm’s interest in plant health began to expand when it was licensed by Louisiana State University to produce sweet potato. It established a company in Portugal, NativaLand, to supply farmers around the world with clean sweet potato material.

Mini tubers

Five years ago, Pat FitzGerald, the managing director of FitzGerald Nurseries, felt that Brexit had “started to look like a train wreck”.

Given his work in exporting plants, FitzGerald could see that the importation of seed potato from the UK to Ireland would be banned by the EU and he put preparations in place for the company to produce potato mini tubers.

Last year, FitzGerald Nurseries was certified by the DAFM to produce pre-basic tissue culture mini tubers. The company gets certified virus-free tissue cultures from the department’s laboratory in Raphoe and then multiplies them in its own laboratory.

The plantlets are then placed in the sterile environment of the nursery’s greenhouse and are protected from aphids, which are responsible for transmitting most potato viruses.

Image Source: FitzGerald Nurseries

At the end of the season the mini tubers are graded and those that measure between 20mm and 35mm are offered to specialist seed potato farmers.

FitzGerald explained that this means that the seed potato farmer is starting off with a “very high health mini tuber”.

“So our role in the whole resurrection of the seed potato industry in Ireland would be that we have the ability to feed in big volumes of those,” he stated.

FitzGerald said that the nursery has the potential to supply any variety once it is certified by DAFM as being virus-free. Varieties such as Champion and Golden Wonder will be available from the company this year for seed potato farmers.

FitzGerald believes that the plant tissue culture business that he has built over the past 15 years is the “missing link” when it comes to producing the initial stages of seed potatoes.

However, he was keen to point out that the company was not going to climb the supply chain and will concentrate on this initial stage of the process as this is where its expertise lies.

“All a specialist seed potato farmer has to do is place an order, we have a list of varieties,” he concluded.