Most San Luis Valley potato growers had enough water in 2012, but the longer-term prospects for the region are more uncertain.
Water availability weighs heavily on growers, said Trampas McCormick, manager of grower-shipper Worley & McCullough Inc., Monte Vista, Colo.
“With the water situation that Colorado and the valley are facing, you really have to watch acreage,” he said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty right now.”
Marketers wring their hands when acreage rises nationwide and threatens to depress markets. But the San Luis Valley will likely do its part in coming years to keep acreage in check, thanks to water concerns.
“You’re not going to see Colorado acreage jump,” McCormick said. “You’ll see it decline.”
Had growers known where corn and wheat markets were headed this summer, they would have planted more of those crops and fewer potatoes, he said.
The water situation in Colorado has forced valley growers to adapt, McCormick said.
“You have to be proactive,” he said. “Farmers do a lot of good things with sustainability, like changing nozzles,” he said.
Growers also are reconditioning ground by growing other plants and disking them up later in the season, McCormick said. It’s good for the land and uses a lot less water than potatoes.
Because of water concerns, wheat and other crops will be removed from production before more profitable potatoes, said, Jed Ellithorpe, a partner and marketing director of Center, Colo.-based Aspen Produce LLC.
“Potatoes will likely still have a big presence,” he said. “Others with lower value would be cut first.”
Acreage was projected to be up in the San Luis Valley this year. Drought was one of the factors (hail was the other) that kept it near last season’s total of 57,000 acres.
“Some wells ran dry and fields had to be disked,” said David Tonso, co-owner of Canon Potato Co., Center.
But the experiences of growers this season in the valley will be nothing compared to what happens in the future if not enough snow falls in the Rocky Mountains, Tonso said.
“It’s a critical issue right now,” he said. “We got some rains this summer, a little more than the past couple of years, but not near enough. We need more snowpack.”
Growers have already made adjustments to prepare for upcoming shortages, Tonso said.
“We’re watching real tight how much water we put on this crop,” he said.
The water situation will affect which crops are grown the valley, Tonso said. Alfalfa and some other grains need more water than potatoes, but that doesn’t mean potato acreage will go up if plantings of those crops declines.
“There will not be more potatoes grown in the valley next year,” he said.
Most growers made it through the 2012 season with enough water, but the future is a different story, said Steve Tillman, manager of Monte Vista Potato Grower Co-op Association, Monte Vista.
“Water will be the issue over the next five years.”