Growing potatoes – growing professionally

November 1980. After almost five years (from April 1976) Steph and I were preparing to leave Costa Rica, the small Central American country sandwiched between Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the south. Our elder daughter Hannah was born there in April 1978. But our time in that beautiful country was coming to an end, and we were headed back to Lima.

So how come I ended up in Costa Rica working on potatoes, since agriculture there is dominated by rice and beans? And coffee and bananas, of course. Potatoes are small beer [1].

Let me explain.

It all started in January 1973, when I joined the staff of the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima and, in the process, fulfilled an ambition I’d had since I was a small boy: to visit Peru.

During the three years I was based in Lima, working as an Associate Taxonomist and helping to conserve CIP’s large collection of native Andean potato varieties, I completed research for my PhD degree, awarded by the University of Birmingham in December 1975.

Earlier that year, in April, I returned to Birmingham to complete the residency requirements for my degree, and to submit my thesis (which was examined in October). However, before leaving for the UK, I had discussions with CIP’s Director General, Richard Sawyer, about rejoining CIP after I had completed my PhD. I wanted to broaden my horizons and learn more about and contribute to potato production around the world, rather than continue working with the potato collection or taxonomy research. He offered me a post-doctoral position in CIP’s Outreach Program, being posted to one of the regional offices.

Exploring options
In 1975, CIP’s Region II program, encompassing Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, had its regional office in Toluca, Mexico (about 64 km west of Mexico City). Potatoes are not a major crop in this region—maize and beans being the staples—although they are locally and economically important in each country.

It was a year of transition. CIP’s regional representative at that time, Ing. Agr. MS Manuel J. Villareal González, had just been named leader of Mexico’s national potato program (in Toluca). My Lima colleague, Ing. Agr. MS Oscar Hidalgo, a plant pathologist, took over as Region II leader and moved to Mexico.

Manuel Villareal and Oscar Hidalgo

The other members of the CIP team in Toluca were local support staff: José Gómez and secretary Guillermina Guadarrama, formerly employees of the Rockefeller Foundation potato program, and some field and glasshouse technicians.

Jose and Guillermina

CIP management proposed setting up a sub-regional office in Costa Rica, without yet deciding what its programmatic responsibility and research focus might be.

To explore various possibilities, Steph and I were asked to visit Costa Rica and Mexico in April on our way back to the UK. And that’s what we did. I should add that I was nervous the whole trip. Why? I was carrying a briefcase full of my thesis research data. I was paranoid that some light-fingered individual might relieve me of the briefcase. There was no computer cloud storage in those days, let alone floppy disks or flash drives.

For many years it was not possible to fly direct between Lima and San José, the capital of Costa Rica. The journey inevitably required a stop-over in Panama City, usually overnight. On our trip north we stayed at the airport hotel but had time enough to explore parts of the city center (not the Canal Zone, unfortunately). And that’s when we had our first McDonald’s hamburgers. I have this distinct memory of my immediate boss, head of CIP’s Dept. of Plant Breeding & Genetics, Dr. Roger Rowe, coming back to Lima from one of his home leaves in the USA and telling us all about these ‘new’ hamburger joints that we should try when we had the opportunity. I had thought that, in 1975, McDonald’s was new to Panama, but from what I have found on the internet, McDonald’s opened its first restaurant there in 1971. Notwithstanding, it was a first for us.

Drs. Luis Carlos Gonzalez (L) and Rodrigo Gamez (R)

My Lima colleague, bacteriologist and head of CIP’s Dept. of Plant Pathology & Nematology, Dr. Ed French made arrangements for us to visit with fellow bacteriologist Dr. Luis Carlos Gonzalez Umaña and plant virologist Dr. Rodrigo Gámez Lobo (who, in later years went on to found and become President of the renowned INBio, the Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad) at the University of Costa Rica.

Luis Carlos and Rodrigo made us very welcome and, with the leader of the Costarrican potato program, Ing. Agr. Luis Fernando Cartín, took us to see potatoes growing on the slopes of the Irazú Volcano east of San Jose, to labs in the university, and, as a side ‘tourist’ visit, to the Instituto Clodomiro Picado nearby where anti-snake venom serum is produced on a large scale (often in horses). Costa Rica has more than 20 highly venomous snake species.

I think we spent about four days in Costa Rica before travelling on to Mexico. We certainly came away from Costa Rica with a favorable impression. San José is dominated by a stunning landscape of volcanoes (Poás, Irazú, Turrialba), some active or recently active, covered in lush, tropical forest and, on the lower slopes, coffee plantations for which the country is famous. Back in the day, San José was a small city of about 456,000 inhabitants.

In Mexico, we stayed with our friends from Lima, John and Marian Vessey who had moved there in 1974 to work at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) near Mexico City. Apart from a visit to the potato program in Toluca, we had the opportunity for some sightseeing, with a memorable visit to the pre-Columbian pyramids at Teotihuacán about 32 km north from CIMMYT.

Steph and me on the top of the Sun Pyramid looking towards the Moon Pyramid at Teotihuacan (April 1975).

Ken Brown

Settling on Costa Rica
Steph and I returned to Lima just after Christmas, all set to move on later in 1976. But where? A decision had not yet been made about Costa Rica.

Meanwhile, a new Director of CIP’s Outreach Program, Dr. Ken Brown, had been appointed while I was back in the UK, and joined CIP in January. In due course, Outreach became the Regional Research Program. As both Ken and his family (wife Geraldine, and five boys) and Steph and I were staying in the center’s guest house for several weeks, we got to know the Browns quite well.

Prof. Luis Sequeira

In order to hasten our move to Region II, we needed to identify an appropriate international institute to host my posting in Costa Rica. So, Roger Rowe, Ed French, and I flew to Costa Rica for a week in early January [2]. There we met with Luis Carlos and Professor Luis Sequeira from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, a world renowned plant bacteriologist (and Costarrican by birth) with whom Luis Carlos had completed his PhD, who happened to be visiting family at the time.

We visited sites on the Irazú Volcano and near Alajuela (a regional town northwest of San José) where Luis Carlos was testing potato breeding lines for resistance to bacterial wilt.

We also visited the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE), a regional center in Turrialba dedicated to research and graduate education in agriculture, and the management, conservation and sustainable use of natural resources, established originally in 1942 as the headquarters of the Inter-American Institute for Agricultural Sciences (IICA).

The CATIE ‘Henry Wallace’ administration building

CATIE plant pathologist Dr. Raul Moreno from Chile explains the focus of the center’s farming systems research to (L-R) Luis Sequeira, Ed French, and Roger Rowe.

Turrialba is a small town just over 70 km due east of San José, although at a much lower elevation—around 650m compared with almost 1200m in the city.

The drive to Turrialba from San José via Cartago was not straightforward. Until around 1978 (or maybe later) the section between Cartago and Turrialba was a dirt road, and quite dangerous. It was also the main route from the Caribbean port of Limón to San José so there was a continual stream of heavy (and noisy) trucks travelling between the two cities. The road passed through a zone of frequent low cloud (neblina) with reduced visibility, sometimes quite severely. And, passing through several sugarcane plantations, there would be tractors towing ‘trains’ of carts carrying harvested cane snaking along the road to local sugar mills, and often without displaying any hazard lights. With the state of the road, the frequency of the heavy traffic, and limited visibility, one could get stuck behind one of these slow-moving ‘trains’ for many kilometers. Very frustrating!

At CATIE, we met with the Acting Director, Dr. Jorge Soria (a cocoa breeder) to discuss signing an agreement between CIP and CATIE that would allow me to work from CATIE as a regional base, and set up a research program to breed potatoes for hot humid climates. Turrialba has an average annual temperature of 22.9°C (73.2°F), and more than 2854 mm (or 112.4 inch) of rainfall per year. The wettest months are May to December, with heaviest rainfall in June and July. This, we assumed, would be an ideal, if not challenging environment in which to attempt to grow potatoes.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, an agreement was signed between CIP and CATIE, under which I was to be attached to CATIE’s Crops Department. It was also agreed that CIP would contribute to CATIE’s cropping systems program (funded through USAID’s Regional Office for Central America and Panama, ROCAP) once suitable potato varieties had been identified.

Steph and I headed to Costa Rica in early April 1976, and we remained there until the end of November 1980. I’ve been back there just once, in 1997.

Getting started in Turrialba
Back in 1976, I can’t deny that I was rather daunted about setting out on my own. I’d turned 27 only the previous November. And communicating with colleagues back in Lima was not straightforward, as I have described in another post.

We didn’t plant our first potato experiments in Turrialba until May 1977 to check whether any varieties would yield under the warm and humid conditions there. Instead, we were faced with bacterial wilt, a devastating disease of potatoes and other related crops like tomato (as well as bananas!), about which I have blogged before.

Between arriving in Costa Rica the previous year and then, I’d had to renovate screenhouses for our research, acquire a vehicle (that took several months), hire a research assistant and a secretary, as well as attend to other regional duties that Oscar Hidalgo asked me to undertake. In fact within a few weeks of arriving in Costa Rica he whisked me off to Mexico for a month to participate in a potato production course, leaving Steph on her own in (to her) a very strange Turrialba.

Within a couple of months or so, I’d hired a young man, Jorge Aguilar Martinez, as my research assistant. Jorge lived in Santa Rosa, a small village just outside Turrialba, where his father grew coffee on a small farm (finca). Jorge was 20 in June that year, recently married to Carmen (a secretary in the animal husbandry department at CATIE), and with a small boy, Leonardo (who is now Head of Information and Communication Technology at CATIE).

Jorge Aguilar

Jorge had applied for a position in the Crops Department at CATIE before I arrived there, but there were no vacancies. He seemed an ideal candidate: keen, interested to get on in the world. He was studying at night at the local campus of the University of Costa Rica for a qualification in business management. Apart from his coffee background, he had no field experience in crop agronomy, let alone potatoes! But Jorge was a quick learner. In fact, we learned a lot together how to grow potatoes. What particularly impressed me about him was his willingness to innovate, look for solutions. And have a flexible attitude to how we worked. We got the job done, and that often meant leaving for our experimental field plots higher up one of the nearby volcanoes before daybreak, and not returning to Turrialba until late in the afternoon once everything had been completed.

One of our isolation plots for seed multiplication high on the slopes of the Turrialba volcano.

Then a young woman, Leda Avila, from Alajuela joined my project as a bilingual secretary. Her support was fantastic. She had a bubbly and confident character, and was always curious to understand exactly what we were doing in the field. One day she asked me if she could join us on one of our visits to experimental plots we had planted on the slopes of the two local volcanoes, Irazú and Turrialba. She told me that as she typed research reports for Lima she had no idea what the work involved, but wanted to find out. So, one day, and donning her field boots, Leda joined the CIP team in the field.

She was so enthusiastic about her first field experience that she would join us thereafter as and when circumstances permitted. Much to the consternation of our CATIE colleagues. They’d never heard of such a thing. But to me, it just made sense to include Leda as a key member of the team.

Moisés Alonso Pereira

In late 1977, Oscar Hidalgo registered for his PhD at North Carolina State University, and left for the USA. On Ken Brown’s recommendation, Richard Sawyer asked me to take over leadership of the Region II Program. As a consequence, my travel schedule increased significantly (especially as we were developing an important cooperative program on potatoes involving six countries, PRECODEPA), and I had to find permanent technical support for Jorge. I hired Moisés Alonso Pereira as Research Technician, who was 17 or 18 then.

Searching for resistance to bacterial wilt (caused by the pathogen Ralstonia solanacearum) and ways to control it became an important focus of our research in Turrialba. But we also developed rapid multiplication techniques for seed production, and that work accelerated once my colleague and dear friend, Jim Bryan, joined the project in Costa Rica for one year in the late seventies, seen in some of the photos below passing on his encyclopedic knowledge about seed production and rapid multiplication techniques to Jorge and others. We also trained potato scientists from neighboring countries about these techniques through PRECODEPA.

At the same time as we were developing these rapid multiplication methods, my colleagues Bob Booth and Roy Shaw in Lima were adapting diffuse light potato storages for use on farm. We took one of their designs, and adapted it for use in Turrialba. With a double sandwich of fiberglass panels, a wide roof overhang to shade the sides, and an air conditioner to drop the temperature to a reasonable level (it was often more than 30ºC outside) we could successfully store potatoes for several months.

Turrialba became a prime site for testing potato varieties for their resistance to bacterial wilt, and CIP scientists from Lima would pass through to see for themselves how we were getting on. Given his interest and expertise in bacterial wilt it wasn’t surprising that Ed French visited us on at least one occasion.

Ed French and Jorge Aguilar checking the yield of some potato varieties after exposure to bacterial wilt. This plot is surrounded by the remains of wilted plants.

We also worked with colleagues in the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry (MAG) in San José to test different potato lines against various diseases such as viruses, and worked with farmers to find ways to increase productivity.

The productivity of many potato farms was quite low. Why? Overuse of fertilizers and agrochemicals, and not applying these in the most effective way to control pests and diseases, especially control of the late blight disease to which the two main varieties Atzimba and Rosita were highly susceptible. Many farmers worked on the basis that twice the dose of a fungicide, for example, would provide twice the control. Sadly that was never the case. Working with individual farmers was possible, but having the potato growers association on side was important. And their president was a young and forward-looking farmer, Olman Montero.

With Olman Montero on his farm on the slopes of the Irazu volcano.

Our work led to a few publications. Scientific publication was always welcome, but was never a driving force in our work. We were more concerned to make a difference in farmers’ fields by providing clean seed, improving productivity, identifying resistant potato varieties, or managing diseases in the field.

  • Bryan, J.E., M.T. Jackson & N. Melendez, 1981. Rapid Multiplication Techniques for Potatoes. International Potato Center, Lima, Peru. PDF
  • Jackson, M.T., L.F. Cartín & J.A. Aguilar, 1981. El uso y manejo de fertilizantes en el cultivo de la papa (Solanum tuberosum L.) en Costa Rica. Agronomía Costarricense 5, 15-19. PDF
  • Jackson, M.T. & L.C. González, 1981. Persistence of Pseudomonas solanacearum (Race 1) in a naturally infested soil in Costa Rica. Phytopathology 71, 690-693. PDF
  • Jackson, M.T., L.C. González & J.A. Aguilar, 1979. Avances en el combate de la marchitez bacteriana de papa en Costa Rica. Fitopatología 14, 46-53. PDF

The five years that I spent in Costa Rica were among the best of my career. I really had to become self-reliant, learning to stand on my own two feet and grow professionally as a scientist and a project manager. There was no alternative. Being so far from CIP headquarters in Lima, and with communications vastly slower than today, I just couldn’t call on someone if I found myself in a spot of bother. Phone calls had to be booked at least a day in advance, or we could use telex – who remembers that? Otherwise I just mailed quarterly progress reports to keep everyone up to date with what was going on in Central America, and whether I was keeping to the work plans developed in December each year when the Regional Research staff from around the world congregated in Lima for a two week planning meeting. Ken Brown was an excellent Regional Research director; he let me and my Regional Research colleagues get on with things with only minor adjustments as and when necessary (keeping his staff ‘on a light rein’), so different from today when scientists are assailed frequently and from many quarters to account for their work and performance.

I owe a great debt to Jorge, Moisés, and Leda for all their contributions to the success of the CIP project in Costa Rica. And all my friends and colleagues in Costa Rica’s Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry, as well as other programs contributing to PRECODEPA.

It was with some sadness that Steph, Hannah, and I upped sticks and moved back to Lima. You might ask why we would make such a move when things were going well in the Costa Rica program. By November 1980 I felt that I had achieved what I’d been sent there for, and even if I stayed on for another year or so, the scope of the work wouldn’t have changed significantly. In any case, the PRECODEPA project was ticking along quite nicely, managed by the national programs themselves, and everyone felt that a more distant relationship with CIP would allow the project to grow and mature. In any case, I was also looking for another potato challenge. And I expected that to come with another Regional Research posting. Little did I know, at the end of November that year, what life would have in store for me in 1981 [3].


Where are they now?
Since leaving Costa Rica at the end of November 1980, I have only been back to Costa Rica once, in 1997 when I was managing a worldwide project on rice biodiversity for the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) funded by the Swiss government. I did meet both Jorge and Leda on that trip; I don’t recall if I saw Moisés during that visit to Turrialba. I stayed a couple of days in Turrialba. Maybe Jorge, Moisés and I spent an evening at the hilltop bar-restaurant at Turrialtico (now a fancy lodge) near CATIE where we would venture to enjoy a few beers (and some typical bar snacks or bocas) after a day in the field. And I had mostly lost contact with all three former colleagues—until quite recently. Such is the power of social media!

Jorge, Leda, and Moisés are all now retired, more or less, although involved in various volunteer activities. They would be in their early to mid-sixties now.

Jorge continues to live in Turrialba, and still manages a small finca on a part-time basis. He and his wife Carmen have three sons and two granddaughters. Sofía and Amanda are Leonardo’s daughters.

Jorge and Carmen

L-R: Fabian (40), Leonardo (44). Carmen, Jorge, and Daniel (30).

Sofia (7) and Amanda (2)

After leaving CATIE in early 1980, Leda returned to Alajuela, and spent many years working at the headquarters of IICA on the outskirts of San José. She has enjoyed traveling in her retirement, most recently in Myanmar in 2019.

She has one son, Enrique (29) who I met in 1997. I stayed with Leda for a couple of nights in Alajuela, and Enrique graciously gave me his room.

Enrique and Leda on 9 November 2020 in her garden in Alajuela.

Moisés now lives in the La Pitahaya neighborhood of Cartago, a city at the heart of the Costarrican potato industry, lying more or less halfway between San José and Turrialba.

Leda, Moisés, and José Alonso

With his second wife Leda, he has one son José Alonso, who celebrated his 11th birthday just a few days ago. Moisés also has two daughters Ana Amelia (26) and Karen (24) from his first marriage. He also has two granddaughters aged sixteen and fifteen.

It’s wonderful to have reconnected with old friends.


[1] In 1983, I contributed a short piece on potatoes in Costa Rican Natural History, a book edited by eminent tropical biologist, Daniel Janzen who spent many years studying biodiversity in Costa Rica.

[2] I have two enduring memories of that trip. Actually, of the flight from Lima to Panama, and the return. As I mentioned earlier, there were no direct flights from Lima to Costa Rica back in the day. We took an early morning flight (around 06:30 or so) on Air Panama from Lima to Panama City, with an onward connection there to San José. Hardly had the aircraft (a Boeing 727) lifted off the runway in Lima when it was ‘open bar’ for the remainder of the flight. I think Roger, Ed, and I all enjoyed rum cocktails before breakfast! Then on the return flight from Panama (I have this idea at the back of my mind that it was a Braniff DC8 flight), we hit an air pocket somewhere over the Colombian Andes, and it felt as though the plane dropped 1000 feet. Bang! That was my first experience of some serious turbulence, but not the last by a long chalk over the next 45 years.

[3] We returned to Lima, with the expectation of moving to Brasilia (for the southern cone countries of South America). When that fell through, the next option was to join the CIP program for Southeast Asia, based in Los Baños in the Philippines. In the event, that didn’t come about since I had applied for a faculty position in the Department of Plant Biology (formerly Botany) at the University of Birmingham, being offered the position in January 1981. We moved back to the UK in March that year. It would be another decade before landing up in the Philippines. But that’s another story.