Rhett Spear was an undergraduate studying chemistry at Utah State in Logan, but he decided he wasn’t really the type to sit in a lab all day. After all, he’d grown up on a farm in southern Idaho, where he and his family grew sugar beets, wheat, alfalfa, corn, and mustard, among other crops.
“I had a friend working with Rick Knowles,” Rhett says, referring to the WSU potato physiologist who retired in 2019. The friend called Rhett and suggested he come work with potatoes. “That sounded good to me, so I gave Mark Pavek a call.” As it happened, Dr. Pavek had a position available, so Rhett joined the potato research group as a Ph.D. student.
“It kind of fell in my lap,” he says.
While at WSU, Rhett conducted consumer acceptance research of fresh-pack varieties. The current standard is Russet Norkotah–but Norkotah is “susceptible to diseases and doesn’t store so well,” Rhett says, so was there something out there that’d give growers a better return and taste better to baked-potato-eating consumers?
As it turns out, Rhett learned, through a series of blind taste tastes, that consumers preferred almost everything over Norkotah. “But,” he says, “in the end, the spud is just a receptacle for bacon, sour cream, and butter”–and amen to that! Besides, growers know how to grow and make money from Norkotah, so why change horses mid-stream? It can be risky to move to a new variety, Rhett says, because “change requires potential lost income due to screw ups.”
After a stint in industry working for a French fry processor based in Idaho, Rhett took a faculty position as a variety development specialist with the University of Idaho, WSU’s longtime partner in potato variety development.
When he’s not in the field working with spuds, Rhett, his wife, their four children, and their black Labrador retriever enjoy the pleasures of southern Idaho, including hunting and fishing.