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Smoke Exposure Linked to Smaller, Misshapen Potatoes, According to U of I, BSU Study

March 21, 2023

MOSCOW, Idaho — Potato plants exposed to extreme smoke produced lower marketable yields than smoke-free plants, according to preliminary data from a joint University of Idaho and Boise State University study.

Results differed based on variety, with heavy wildfire smoke exposure being linked to smaller Clearwater Russets and causing more unusable and misshapen Russet Burbanks. The project involved pumping artificially emulated wildfire smoke onto potato plots covered by plastic.

The two-year study seeks to understand how prolonged exposure to wildfire smoke affects yields, crop quality and the chemical composition of potatoes. Project leaders Mike Thornton, a professor in U of I’s Department of Plant Sciences, and Boise State University Chemistry Department Chair Owen McDougal hope the research helps identify smoke-resistant potato varieties.

“As we look at these varieties, if we see some that are less responsive to smoke, growers and processors can start looking at using those long term,” Thornton said.

The preliminary data suggests growers who raise Russet Burbanks stand to suffer a greater economic hit due to smoke than growers who raise Clearwater Russets.

In Clearwater Russet, smoke exposure reduced the yield of potatoes greater than 6 ounces by 12%, with no change in the percentage of misshapen tubers. Smoke exposure did not shrink the size profile of Russet Burbank crops, but there was a 3% increase in tubers greater than 10 ounces becoming misshapen.

McDougal’s laboratory analyzed the spuds, as well as fries processed by the U of I Food Technology Center in Caldwell from the experimental tubers, immediately after harvest and will conduct another chemical analysis this spring following six months of storage.

McDougal’s chemical analysis found no difference in levels of asparagine — an amino acid crucial in the production of acrylamide, which is found in fried foods and may be linked to cancer — between smoke-exposed and untreated potatoes. He will also evaluate how storage of smoke exposure may affect potato reducing sugars, which contribute to darker and less desirable fry color.

“We’re also looking at storage and whether smoke exposure negatively impacts potatoes’ storage resilience,” McDougal said.

Thornton and his colleagues at the U of I Parma Research and Extension Center burned a blend of hard and soft woods in a smoker and piped the smoke into potato plots under plastic covers for three hours each morning from July 11 to Aug. 18, removing the covers following the treatments.

Smoke levels in the experiment were far greater than levels that occur in nature, even during bad wildfire seasons, Thornton said. Plastic covers raised humidity by up to 20% — enough to interfere with evaporative cooling of leaves — and increased temperature by up to 9 degrees during late morning, which likely stunted the potato crops. When the team repeats the experiment this summer, Thornton plans to use shade covers to keep the temperature down and fans to circulate air, in part to control humidity.

Thornton also believes the study’s data could eventually provide evidence that smoke lowers potato yields and should be covered by crop insurance plans.

McCain Foods provided assistance and guidance with the project and assembled its research team.

ASSETS AVAILABLE: An online gallery is available for download and use with captioned photos.

The project, called “Impact of Smoke on Potato Growth, Storage and Profitability,” was funded with a $125,000, two-year grant from the federal Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, of which 100% was the federal share, under federal award No. 2021 SCBGP-FB and authorized through USDA Agricultural and Marketing Services. Of that total, U of I received a subaward of $71,120 under subaward No. 9896-PO140065.

Media Contact

John O’Connell
Assistant Director of Communications, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences

Mike Thornton
Professor of Plant Sciences, University of Idaho

Deron Beck, a scientific aide at the UI Parma Research and Extension Center, left, and Mike Thornton, a U of I plant sciences professor in Parma, stand by the smoker they use to simulate wildfire smoke and its effects on potatoes. By U of I's College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

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The University of Idaho, home of the Vandals, is Idaho’s land-grant, national research university. From its residential campus in Moscow, U of I serves the state of Idaho through educational centers in Boise, Coeur d’Alene and Idaho Falls, nine research and Extension centers, plus Extension offices in 42 counties. Home to nearly 11,000 students statewide, U of I is a leader in student-centered learning and excels at interdisciplinary research, service to businesses and communities, and in advancing diversity, citizenship and global outreach. U of I competes in the Big Sky and Western Athletic conferences. Learn more at


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