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Mormon potato physiologist Robert Kunkel dies at 99

By Terence L. Day

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 7 2012 5:00 a.m. MST

PULLMAN, Wash. — Robert Kunkel, 99, a patriarch in the Moscow Idaho Stake and retired Washington State University scientist heralded as “the greatest living potato physiologist in the world,” died here Thursday, Oct. 25.

Kunkel was credited with saving Washington’s potato industry from internal blackspot and helping propel it to the highest yields per acre and highest quality tubers in the United States.

In 1957, Washington’s potato industry was experiencing low yields and blackspot, a physiological disorder. Entire rail cars of Washington potatoes were being rejected by Eastern buyers and sold for hog feed. Many potato growers experienced financial disasters.

During an interview published in the Moscow-Pullman Daily News in 1990, Kunkel said when he was hired by WSU, Washington potatoes were derisively called “Moses Lake Water Bags.” They didn’t ship well or store well for long periods and didn’t process well. Many experts thought the Columbia Basin could never become a top potato-producing area.

“My appraisal of that was ‘baloney,’" Kunkel told a Daily Evergreen reporter in 1991. “All you are telling me is that you can’t grow potatoes in the Columbia Basin the way you’ve been accustomed to growing potatoes.”

Kunkel took the problem as a personal challenge. “I came here to solve a problem the experts said couldn’t be solved,” he said.

One person told him, “Kunkel, you will regret the day when you took a stand on potatoes in the Columbia Basin.”

With confidence that he was pursuing the career that God intended him to pursue, Kunkel went to work finding answers to Washington’s potato problems.

In less than a year, he discovered that blackspot was a bruise that occurred in handling potatoes that had suffered stress from too little moisture. His discovery led to many more years of research aimed at eliminating the problem, but it was a key to rescuing the state’s declining potato industry. In less than two decades Washington was the nation’s second-leading producer of potatoes.

Kunkel retired from the WSU faculty in 1974 and just kept right on working. He spent the next two decades as a researcher and consultant to potato industries in Bolivia, Egypt, Israel and Russia. His contributions to potato cultivation are especially important because potatoes are a primary food crop to sustain life in underdeveloped countries.

Genetic testing reveals that modern-day potatoes were domesticated from wild species that originated in present-day southern Peru and northwestern Bolivia. Cultivation of potatoes in Bolivia, where they are grown at elevations as high as 15,000 feet, could hardly be more radically different than production in the Columbia Basin.

Kunkel worked in Bolivia for three and a half years in a program for the Consortium for International Development, helping farmers increase yields from six tons per hectare to 56 tons.

He also assisted Egyptian farmers through the Volunteers in Overseas Cooperative Assistance program. Many people thought potatoes were ill-suited for production in Egypt’s hot desert climate. Kunkel thought otherwise and proved he was right.

He made two trips to Russia in 1993. There he surveyed potato production for Land O’Lakes and returned under the auspices of WSU’s International Programs.

Kunkel received a bachelor’s degree in horticulture from Utah State University (then Utah State Agricultural College) in 1937 and a doctorate from Cornell in 1945. During his career at Colorado State University, Cornell University and WSU, Kunkel wrote more than 100 scientific publications.

He was inducted into the Utah State University College of Agriculture Alumni Hall of Fame in 2000. Kunkel was a member of the Potato Association of America for more than 25 years, serving as director for three years, on the editorial board for five years and as vice president and president.

Kunkel showed lifelong commitments to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and to the Boy Scouts of America. He served his church as a Mormon missionary in Germany, leaving the country the night German troops invaded Poland, and also as a bishop. He was a member of the Terre View Ward, Moscow Idaho Stake.

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