Our STORY – the Hungarian connection
The Sárvári family from the Lake Balaton region in Hungary started breeding potatoes for high resistance to late-blight disease over 40 years ago. The late Dr Sárvári was director of Keszthely Research Institute (now University of Pannonia Georgikon, Faculty of Agriculture, Potato Research Centre). His Soviet bosses wanted a hardy strain of potatoes for growing across the USSR which would survive the ravages of climate and disease and that were not dependent on expensive chemical inputs.
Using South American and Mexican wild potato material from the Vavilov collection, genes conferring resistance to common viruses (including PVX, PVY, PLRV) were soon bred into his stocks. Resistance to late-blight disease took a little longer to transfer but eventually, exceptionally high resistance was achieved. Dr Sárvári and his wife left the Potato Research Centre and continued breeding privately at their home.
While visiting potato trials in Romania, Scottish seed potato grower, Adam Anderson, observed some plants from Hungary surviving in a devastated field of blighted potatoes. The hunt was on and Adam tracked the plants down to the Sárvári family in 1994. A company was soon formed to support the breeders, with Adam, partner William Wedderspoon and the Danish Seed potato group, Danespo. The company built a small breeding station near the Sárvári family home in the village of Zirc, near Veszprém. The laboratory, greenhouse, potato store and experimental kitchen were surrounded by trial fields. Unfortunately, Dr Sárvári, Snr, died in 1995 before any Sárpo potatoes had been commercialized.
The good work continued with sons Dr István Sárvári Jnr., Dr Balázs Sárvári and their mother, Dr M. Sárvári. Promising new clones were sent to Adam in Scotland who had them grown in a trial with the world’s best resistant varieties. David Shaw visited the trial and was impressed by the top performance of the Hungarian clones. Adam and David were assisted by New Park Management (the late Murdo MacKenzie and Kevin Scott) in the setting up of the Sarvari Research Trust in 2002. The Trust was sited near Bangor North Wales, where David had been researching late-blight disease and blight resistant varieties. The story goes that in the early days of the Trust, David was paid in rather large bottles of malt whisky from a barrel in Adam’s basement. Sadly, Dr I Sarvari died in 2017 and breeding by the family was discontinued.
The first variety to be Nationally Listed in 2002 was Sarpo Mira, a clone with outstanding resistance. This was followed shortly after by Axona, another maincrop clone with very good flavour and the same high resistance to late-blight disease.
Simon White joined David in 2004 and took over the management of blight trials, selection of newer seedlings and the multiplication of seed of established varieties in preparation for marketing. This allowed selection of more seedlings with commercial potential to extend the range of blight-resistant Sarpo varieties to include other skin colours, earlier maturities and waxy/salad types. Successful National Listing of these extend the Sarpo family of varieties to seven in all. Simon left the trust in 2016 to start breeding new Sarpo varieties on a KESS award linking SRT with Katherine Steele in Bangor University but sadly died before he could finish his PhD project.
Just in case you’ve heard different versions of how Sarpo or Sarvari is pronounced … here is chapter and verse:
SARPO POTATOES LTD (SPL) – our new entity
Although we continue to develop and breed improved varieties that fit within the Sarpo family we realised that we needed to get them into gardeners’ and growers’ hands in a more commercial way. In 2013 Sarpo Potatoes Ltd was formed as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Sarvari Trust. Our remit was simple: grow the seed potato crop of the existing listed varieties and sell them in the United Kingdom, the EU and anywhere in the world where plant breeders rights are respected.
This meant an intensive year of developing a brand, packaging … and this website, supported by crowdfunding and by the Welsh Government.
As most potatoes in UK are retailed via the all powerful supermarkets, we naively thought that they would want to sell our varieties. However, it became clear that supermarkets were not interested in disease resistance as everyone knows that disease is so efficiently controlled by fungicides, albeit at a cost of up to £90m each year in GB. We were often told that our varieties did not show that essential uniformity and beautiful skin finish that the consumer must have.
It also took us some time to find out that without lots more investment SPL as a very small company was never going to make a profit. That is why we have our seed grown in Scotland by a well-establish family farm with great experience of growing organic certified seed.