Colorado Growers Hope for Stronger Prices

Published online: Sep 27, 2021 Articles Tom Karst
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Source: The Packer

Potato shippers in Colorado’s San Luis Valley are looking  for a good crop of fresh potatoes this season, with some estimates calling for slightly reduced output compared with a year ago.

United Potato Growers of America forecast in August that Colorado’s San Luis Valley fresh output would be 13.09 million hundredweight, down 518,000 hundredweight from the 2020 crop.

Early-season hail hurt yields for some fields, but recent weather conditions have been favorable, industry sources said.

The San Luis Valley has about 150 growers and about 75 farms, since some ground is co-owned, said Jessica Crowther, assistant director of the Colorado Potato Administrative Committee. The region has 17 potato warehouses and a handful of marketers, she said. 

For the 2020-21 season, San Luis Valley shippers moved 14.6 million hundredweight of fresh potatoes, Crowther said. About 5 percent of the San Luis Valley fresh potato crop is organic, according to committee statistics. About 50,000 acres of potatoes were planted, down slightly from a year ago. The region is the nation’s No. 2 fresh market potato suppliers, trailing only Idaho.

Russet Norkotahs are a big variety for growers, followed in importance by Canela Russet.

In the past year, about 84 percent of the crop was classified as russet, with 10 percent yellows, 4 percent red and 2.3 percent other varieties such as purple potatoes and fingerlings.

The industry is optimistic for a good year, said James Ehrlich, executive director of the Colorado Potato Administrative Committee. Harvest is expected to continue until about Oct. 10.

Ehrlich said Colorado’s biggest potato markets include Texas, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Arizona.

The state also is well-positioned to export to Mexico, and the long-awaited potential expansion of sales to Mexico beyond the 26-kilometer border zone would be a big boost to Colorado potato marketers, he said. 

During the 2020-21 season, Ehrlich said about 9 percent of the San Luis Valley potato crop was sold to Mexico.

Long-term, the availability of water is a big area of concern for growers in the San Luis Valley, Ehrlich said. Growers have been making progress in becoming more efficient with water resources over time, but Mother Nature has not favored the region in recent years. The lack of water could limit future expansion of acreage, Ehrlich said.

“We’re pumping 30 percent less water than we did in 2000,” he said, but the lack of wet years has slowed efforts to recharge the aquifer. When a wet year does come, the state also has obligations to send additional water to Texas and New Mexico because of the Rio Grande River compact. 

The biggest change over the 15 years that Ehrlich has been with the committee has been consolidation both at the retail and farmer level, he said.

“There are fewer young farmers really getting started in the game and older guys want to retire,” he said. 

In terms of marketing the fresh crop, Ehrlich said that more of the potato production is contracted than 15 years ago. About 25 percent of the crop was sold on a contract basis 15 years ago, and Ehrlich said that now may be 60 percent or more.

Contracting takes some of the highs and lows out of the market, but at the same time growers need strong prices this year because costs for fertilizer, fuels and other inputs have been more expensive. In addition, growers are having to pay more for labor. Beginning next year, Colorado growers will have to pay overtime for their farmworkers.

“There is no end to the rising costs, so growers need more money for their product,” he said.

Promoting Nutrition Education

Ehrlich said one of the main activities of the committee is educating consumers about potato nutrition by leveraging the resources of Potatoes USA. 

“We just want to keep people consuming as many potatoes as they can, and to know that (potatoes) are good for them,” he said. 

Fresh use of potatoes is the primary focus of marketing efforts since the region typically sends about 95 percent of its volume to the fresh market. The group also is expanding its social media presence and is planning to invest in marketing promotions in Mexico as potato access expands there, he said.

Potato Festival, School Promos

Crowther said the committee hosted the San Luis Valley Potato Festival on Sept. 11 in Monte Vista. The community event featured food vendors, games and entertainment for the whole family.

For the upcoming year, Crowther said the committee is looking to do more nutrition education to schools.

“We focus a lot of our marketing and educational efforts on the nutritional value of potatoes, because (that) is overlooked a lot of times,” she said. “We have some plans to kind of get in some schools and talk more about potato nutrition and getting that younger generation excited to eat potatoes in more ways than just french fries.”

The committee is the beginning stages of developing curriculum for some elementary school-aged children, with hopes to launch that effort by the end of this year.

In addition, she said the committee is focusing efforts on teaching consumers the value of fresh potatoes and how they can be used in recipes. With retail and foodservice demand in flux because of COVID-19 realities, she said the main message is simple.

“I think it is important to remind people that fresh potatoes are good for you and that they are very versatile.”