Yukon Gold Potato turns 50

Your favourite specialty spud isn’t necessarily a genetic descendant of Yukon Gold potatoes.

But in another way, those gourmet potatoes in your supermarket or on your restaurant dinner plate might owe something to that popular named variety developed a half-century ago at the University of Guelph.

Even just naming a potato suggested that “it was special, it tasted better than the average potato,” says Vanessa Currie, a plant agriculture technician. “It opened the door for the idea of the potato going from just being a potato with no name to something special.”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the potato bred by Gary Johnston at U of G. In 1966, two years after the University’s establishment, Johnston bred Yukon Gold, which reached Canadian growers in 1981.

Johnston, a graduate of the Ontario Agricultural College, died in 2000, but his idea — a potato with a name — lives on.

Earlier, a potato was just a potato. “It was sustenance,” says Currie. “Potatoes were something people ate every day.”

After the Second World War, new immigrants arrived in Canada from Europe, particularly Belgium and the Netherlands. They brought with them different tastes.

Currie says Johnston worked to accommodate those changing tastes. In the mid-1900s, that idea was a bit revolutionary.

Today consumers can still buy an ordinary 4.5-kilogram bag of generic potatoes for two dollars. But you can also buy a premium bag weighing a third as much for more than twice the price.

And many of those new potatoes are marketed with monikers that sound more like something in the beauty products aisle rather than the produce aisle.

Referring to a variety sold by one supermarket chain, Currie says, “They wouldn’t have gotten to Strawberry Blonde without Yukon Gold in between. A generation of consumers has grown up thinking of Yukon Gold. Now the bar is raised.” –ANDREW VOWLES