Potato farmers could beat profit-draining crop losses by using a Harley, says a University of Florida expert — but he's not talking about plowing fields with a motorcycle.

It's Harley Blackwell, a potato variety that's getting attention in northeast Florida, where spuds have been a staple crop for decades.

Co-released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the University of Florida and several other universities in 2003, Harley Blackwell is almost immune to internal heat necrosis, which discolors potatoes and makes them unmarketable, said Chad Hutchinson, a UF associate professor of horticulture.

That's good news for farmers in the Southeast, where conditions can change dramatically during the growing season, Hutchinson said. The disorder is caused by fluctuations in temperature, soil moisture and nutrient levels.

“If we can reduce the amount of internal heat necrosis, we can help farmers avoid losses,” he said.

Chip manufacturers routinely inspect potatoes they receive from growers, and if too many have defects the entire shipment is rejected, Hutchinson said. When that happens growers are left with tons of waste potatoes and lost profits.

UF researchers evaluated Harley Blackwell from 1998 to 2003 at the Florida Partnership for Water, Agriculture and Community Sustainability at Hastings. In almost two dozen field trials, no more than 1 percent of the tubers sampled had internal heat necrosis, he said. In similar trials with the world's leading chipping potato variety, Atlantic, up to 30 percent of tubers had the disorder. The work was funded by the USDA and UF.

The findings have been submitted to the scientific journal The Proceedings of the Florida State Horticultural Society and were published in late February.

Harley Blackwell was grown on about 100 acres in northeast Florida last year, though acreage is expected to be down in 2007 because Atlantic seed cost less, Hutchinson said.

“Growers don't change production practices that fast,” he said. “However, this variety has reached a milestone in that growers now realize how it can help their business.”

Harley Blackwell produces smooth-skinned, round potatoes about the size of a baseball. It was developed by a USDA potato breeder, and is sold by Maine Farmers Exchange in Presque Isle, Maine.