Potato expert shares expertise throughout the world


03 August 2022
Award-winning crop specialist retires - but keeps spreading the knowledge

A RETIRED potato crop specialist, who formerly worked with the US's University of Maine Co-Operative Extension, is sharing his expertise globally, which includes helping the Australia seed industry this winter.

Steve Johnson, who was based in Aroostook in the US, spent 34 years advising growers when to plant, how to treat diseases and pests, how to properly store crops and introducing technology to growers before he retired in June. 

His work has earned him awards from the National Safety Council, Potato Association of America and Maine Potato Board, among others. In 2000 he became an Extension professor and, in recognition of his career, UMaine named him Extension professor and crops specialist emeritus.

He harvested 33 consecutive crops of research potatoes, and pioneered an “electronic potato” that became the industry standard for calibrating harvesters to reduce bruising the crop in the field. His expertise has been shared in the US, Australia, Guatemala and Macedonia.

In a recent interview with the Bangor Daily News Steve, who lives on the coast with his wife, Jennifer, said he enjoyed working directly with growers and developing ties with them and liked to feel he was making a difference.

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This winter he will return to Australia to work with the seed industry there, and is planning projects to help people learn more about the science of agriculture.

He is devoted to introducing technology to places in the world that really need it, which he has done as a volunteer scientist in several countries.

Advances in potato storage have resulted in temperature and moisture-controlled environments that mean potatoes can be stored well for a long time. In Guatemala’s mountainous terrain, where there is no electricity, Johnson worked with diffused light storage, an economic option that keeps potatoes in indirect light with good ventilation.

He brought US potato varieties to Macedonia and the Dominican Republic, worked with potato processors in New Zealand and wrote a program to predict late blight in Australia. He introduced mechanical planters to farmers in Australia and, since the advent of COVID-19, has coordinated international Zoom sessions where growers can share knowledge across borders.

Labour shortages and climate change are challenges currently faced by the potato industry worldwide. Steve said in the interview that, while visiting Australia and New Zealand in the mid-1990s, growers would go to the pubs and round up people who wanted to work but now depend on young people backpacking through the country to provide seasonal work.

Source: The Bangor Daily News / Steven Johnson