The fast-approaching 2010-11 potato season in the San Luis Valley of Colorado could be the antidote for the lingering headaches grower-shippers have been suffering in the wake of the 2009-10 deal.
Last year, a freeze affected the quality and size of the valley’s usually superior potatoes, and domestic overproduction resulted in low f.o.b.s.
What a difference a year makes.
“We’ve had hot days and cold nights — just absolutely perfect weather for growing conditions,” said Mark Bisel, owner and sales manager of Apex Produce Co. LLC, Center, Colo.
Sizes are going to be big too, he said. An early August check of some fields found 50-count sized tubers.
Apex markets a variety of russets including norkatohs, blazers, nuggets and classics.
There were early signs of a better season than last year.
“We were very busy during the summer,” said Angela Diera, saleswoman at Skyline Potato Co., Center. “We’re anticipating good quality, higher volume and a busy year.”
Two weeks of cloudy weather in August did little to hinder the crop.
“We were already looking very good before those clouds came in,” said Lee Jackson, operations manager for Farm Fresh Direct LLC, Monte Vista, Colo.
Farm Fresh Direct specializes in conventional and organic russets and yellows, he said.
Some grower-shippers had begun harvesting in late August, but the valley’s volume will ramp up in mid-September, Jackson said. For good reason. Growers want to have the crop in storage and packing sheds before the cold weather hits.
“We like to be done between Oct. 1 and Oct. 10,” Jackson said. “If necessary, we’ll jeopardize a little bit of size and yield to make sure we get a good crop in.”
The opinion is shared by Jed Ellithorpe, partner and marketing director at Aspen Produce LLC, Center.
“The rule of thumb is that after Oct. 15, you’re on borrowed time,” he said.
The valley’s overall planting acreage is down slightly from 2009, but increased yields will result in about the same volume, grower-shippers said.
Monte Vista-based Worley & McCullough Inc. planted about the same acreage as last year and expects volume to be slightly up from 2009, said Trampas McCormick, manager.
“The weather during the growing season was beautiful, which allowed the potatoes to grow faster,” he said. “We also expect much improved quality.”
Worley & McCullough markets mainly russets and yellows, McCormick said.
Russets are the main variety at Hi-Land Potato Co., Monte Vista, but the company also markets reds and yellows and some specialty varieties, said Carla Worley, co-owner. The specialty varieties include purple purples, red reds and red yellows, she said.
“I think there’s greater acceptance of the new varieties now among shoppers,” Worley said. “I think consumers are much more excited about the varieties, and they are higher in antioxidants.”
Specialty varieties are not new to the San Luis Valley, although finding regular customers can at times be a challenge, said Jim Ehrlich, executive director of the Colorado Potato Administrative Committee, Monte Vista.
“Niche markets can be difficult,” he said. “Getting retailers to commit is the challenge — not unlike the chicken and the egg.”
There is a trend to get away from russet dominance, however, Ehrlich said. To that end, researchers at Colorado State University, Fort Collins, are focusing on new variety development.
The committee also is using a specialty crop grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to focus on four varieties, each of which is unique, he said.
“One is a purple variety that is really high in antioxidants and could be a cancer fighter,” Ehrlich said.
Only a handful of grower-shippers in the valley focus on other than the fresh potato market.
“When our growers are growing a crop, they are pretty cognizant of the fact they want as much of the crop as possible to qualify for the fresh market,” Ehrlich said.