Farm Ireland
Independent.ie

Wednesday 18 January 2017

'Potato breeding is a slow and expensive business'

Published 05/10/2016 | 02:30

Harry Kehoe worked for over 40 years at Teagasc Oakpark where he developed the Rooster variety of potato which now accounts for two thirds of the Irish market. Photos: Karl McDonagh
Harry Kehoe worked for over 40 years at Teagasc Oakpark where he developed the Rooster variety of potato which now accounts for two thirds of the Irish market. Photos: Karl McDonagh

'I don't know much about potatoes anymore." These were the first words said by Harry Kehoe as I sat down at his kitchen table in Carlow town last week and they are typical of the straight-talking, down-to-earth man described as "one of Europe's most renowned potato breeders".

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Born on June 10, 1935, on a farm in Rathvilly, in the shadow of the Wicklow Mountains, he attended primary school locally, then Ballyfin College followed by UCD, graduating with a degree in agriculture in 1958.

He began his working life in 1959 as a scientific officer with the Department of Agriculture in Athenry, Co Galway, where he met his future wife Maura, before joining An Foras Talúntais (later Teagasc) to work on plant research.

After a short stint on sugar beet, he quickly realised he would prefer the challenge of potatoes, on which little research had been done, so he was effectively starting from scratch.

He arrived in Oakpark in December 1960, little imagining that he would remain there for over 40 years until his retirement in 2003.

He was aged just 23 and remains very grateful for the trust shown in him by Dr Tom Walsh, AFT's first director. "I was a young lad but he didn't interfere too much." Likewise to his immediate boss, PJ O'Hare, the institute's assistant director, and to team he worked with at Oakpark.

In the following years, the team led by Harry developed more than 35 varieties of potato.

While Rooster is the best known variety in Ireland, Cara has been the most successful variety, and almost 40 years after its release is still being grown in markets as diverse as the UK, Egypt and the Canary Islands.

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Last month, Harry was conferred with an honorary doctorate of science by UCD in recognition of his contribution to potato breeding.

When asked how he felt at the time about their successes, Harry says, "I didn't have time to feel, I was too worried about getting money to survive. We were nearly closed down several times. That's why I had to look for funding." This led to the establishment of one of Ireland's longest and most successful public private partnerships, with Irish Potato Marketing (IPM) given exclusive rights to market Teagasc varieties.

"Developing potatoes is a slow and thus expensive business," says Harry. It takes at least 15 years to develop a new variety and at least 20 before it is established.

"You never know when a variety is going to be successful. It could take as much as 100,000 seeds or you might get one out of 100. If anything showed a weakness, you just dumped it and started again," he states, unsentimentally.

Harry says his "memory isn't as good as it was" but one thing he has no problem with is variety numbers, which, rather than name, is how he knows "thousands" of different potatoes.

When asked if he now grows a few spuds himself, his response is matter-of-fact as usual - "too much work." It's easier to get them off Martin (his son who grows a sizeable acreage of potatoes).

As to the potato's rival, pasta, his response is a dismissive "Aah," adding only, "it's not as nourishing."

Harry retired in 2003 at the age of 68. Thus he never had much spare time but did play a bit of rackets (an indoor game like squash in which two players use long rackets). More recently he was playing some golf but has had to put that on hold due to an Achilles problem.

However, Harry is sanguine. "I enjoyed my work and the research programme is on a sound financial footing. No, I don't regret anything."

The origins of the Rooster uber-tuber

 

Harry Kehoe always believed there should be some significance to the name of a potato. So the quirky story behind his most famous variety, Rooster, is quite fitting.

There comes a point in the development process when the variety need to be tested on-farm and, over 25 years ago, some new red-skinned potatoes were sent to Owen Phelan in Kilkenny.

This is according to Joan Dillon, who was Harry’s assistant in Oakpark for 35 years and is delighted he is getting some due recognition for his achievements.

The Phelans were selling potatoes “fork to table” and, one day, Owen’s father, whom Joan only ever heard referred to as “Mr” Phelan, gave a woman a few potatoes out of a bag that was left over from the trial.

The following week, the woman came back looking for more.

Then she asked Mr Phelan, “what’s their name?”

He hesitated at first, then looked out the window where there was a heap of dung with a red rooster standing on top and just said what popped into his mind, “rooster!”

Joan says the story was the source of great fun within the team but when they thought about it — the potato is bright red, after all — while Harry himself liked the name, so it stuck.

All-rounder

Joan has often been asked if this is what really happened but she says, “I was there through it all.”

Rooster, which has been dubbed the ultimate all-rounder and uber-tuber, is Ireland’s most widely grown potato, accounting for two-thirds of the market.

With yellow flesh and a deep earthy flavour, its smooth skin and uniform shape make it easy to peel. Though floury, it retains its shape on being boiled and is also suitable a range of other uses.

Appropriately enough, Rooster is also Harry’s own favourite brand of spud.

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