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Urban Cowboy: Digging deep to find Yukon Golds

In this week's Urban Cowboy, Owen Roberts takes a look at the "most local" of potatoes.
Urban Cowboy is Owen Roberts' weekly look at agriculture and food in Guelph.

My friends Cort and Tara, who’ve become zealously converted Guelphites in the three years they’ve lived here, always look for Yukon Gold potatoes when they shop for food.

“They make great scalloped potatoes,” says Cort. Plus, having been developed at the University of Guelph, Yukon Golds are about as local as you can get. And that means a lot to him and Tara, and to many Guelph foodies.

But, these days Yukon Golds are in short supply. And it’s not related to demand.

yukongold_4Tara Sutton and Cort Egan had a tough time finding these Yukon Gold potatoes. Photo: Joanne Pearce.

Here’s the story. Yukon Golds were officially developed back in 1966 at the University of Guelph by potato breeder Gary Johnston.  

After many years of testing – which is a normal practice for new plant varieties -- Yukon Golds hit the market in 1980. They went on to become iconic, and not just in Guelph, or even Canada. US President Bill Clinton served them at a White House dinner, erroneously thinking they were from northern USA (they’re not). Like others, he flocked to them fork in hand because of their superb nutty taste and distinct yellow colour that reminded many people of butter.

In fact, so regaled are Yukon Golds they that they finished in the top five in last fall’s popularity poll of game-changing inventions from Ontario universities, called Research Matters.

So you’d think all that would mean Yukon Golds would be plentiful on Guelph store shelves.

But to the dismay of Cort, Tara and other potato aficionados, Yukon Golds have become hard to find.  And not just in Guelph.

It turns out they’re scarce in Ontario’s potato fields, too.

In fact, Yukon Golds comprise less than five per cent of the 36,000 acres of potatoes grown in the province.

So what’s up?

Well, despite their good taste – and the positive health attributes of all potatoes, particularly potassium and Vitamin C – it turns out Yukon Golds struggle on other fronts. They are highly susceptible to a number of diseases and defects, including a potato virus called PVY-NTN, and a condition known as hollow heart.

Vanessa Currie at Elora fall 2015.Vanessa Currie at Elora in Fall 2015. Photo: Nick Murphy/Office of Research, University of Guelph.
“Yukon Golds are not a popular variety with potato growers,” says University of Guelph potato program technician Vanessa Currie, who worked briefly with fabled breeder Johnston.

“They’re still grown by some farmers because their customers specifically request it, but given the choice, most growers find other yellow varieties easier to produce and profit from,” she says. “That’s a shame, because Yukon Gold is a good cooking potato for both boiling and baking, but growers need high yields of perfect potatoes to make money these days.”

The best money in potatoes comes from those varieties that are sold to companies like Frito Lay in Cambridge for chips. About half of the potatoes grown in Ontario go to that market. If you’re a local food fan, you can get your fill by eating Frito Lay chips, because the company almost exclusively uses Canadian potatoes for the Canadian market.

At Guelph, one of the new and emerging priorities for Currie and potato  program director Prof. Alan Sullivan is early-maturing varieties, with funding support from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, and the federal Growing Forward II program.

A 5-6 week (or longer) gap exists between the old crop that’s in storage, and the new crop coming off the field. If researchers can close the gap with a variety that stores a little longer or matures a little sooner, they’ll have a winner, with farmers and consumers.

Last year, with that goal in mind, they tested about 10 early-maturing lines. They’re continuing to evaluate them now, as part of a program that sees them try out about 120 new lines every year, with a variety of traits.

I’ll look forward to seeing Cort and Tara light up, if one of those new lines is gold.

Urban Cowboy with Owen Roberts is published every Tuesday on