Colorado potato growers in the San Luis Valley are optimistic about the 2018 crop as harvest begins. ( Courtesy Colorado Potato Administrative Committee )

Cooperative weather during the growing season has San Luis Valley potato industry members anticipating a good crop.

Companies expected solid quality and about the same volume as in 2017, with demand also holding steady.

Jim Ehrlich, executive director for the Monte Vista-based Colorado Potato Administrative Committee, said there are about 52,000 acres planted this year.

“We’ve had a warm summer that at our elevation is a little bit unusual, and it’s been really dry, but the crop looks really good,” Ehrlich said.

“We’ve had adequate irrigation water and very few storm events, so I think we’re going to have an exceptional crop.”

Ehrlich expected volume for the region to be steady, with acreage roughly the same as 2017.

“Even though I think the crop’s going to yield well, I do think our organic acreage is up, and typically organic potatoes don’t yield as well,” Ehrlich said.

He noted that normally the region does not have much pest pressure but said weed pressure might be higher this year given the hot, dry weather.

Jamey Higham, president and CEO of Monte Vista, Colo.-based Farm Fresh Direct, also reported that growing conditions have been solid.

“Overall, the weather has been pretty good for potatoes — a few more cloudy days that we might like, but good,” Higham said Aug. 30.

“We are just getting started with harvest, and we all have our fingers crossed that Mother Nature cooperates.

“Our volume on conventional potatoes looks to be about flat, but we’ll see for sure after harvest is complete,” Higham said. “Our organic volume should see a slight increase, but once again, we need to get through harvest.”

Farm Fresh Direct started with new crop russets the week of Aug. 27 after beginning with new crop organic reds and yellows the week of Aug. 20.

“The timing is just about right on schedule so far,” Higham said.

Jason Tillman, general manager for the Monte Vista Potato Grower Co-op Association, noted that water has been tight as usual but that otherwise conditions have been solid.

“We’ve had good weather, nice hot days and cool nights, so I think the crop is looking pretty good,” Tillman said Aug. 29.

Sheldon Rockey, partner for Center, Colo.-based Rockey Farms, gave a similar report.

“I felt like we had probably the ideal potato-growing summer, no real issues,” Rockey said Aug. 29.

“As far as the whole valley, there was some hail on the ninth of August, but I wasn’t affected by that as far as my crop goes, but there was some damage on that day ... Other than that it was a pretty good growing season.”

Rockey Farms expected to start shipping some items the week of Sept. 3 and planned to begin shipping in larger volumes Oct. 1, on schedule with previous years.

Les Alderete, general manager for Center-based Skyline Potato Co., also expected a normal start time.

“Looking at some of these fields, early on we thought they were ahead 10 days, but once we started digging in them and stuff throughout the season, it looked like they were more set for a normal time,” Alderete said.

“All the fields we’ve looked at that we’ve got coming to us, they’ve looked good.”

 

Demand

Growers reported that interest in Colorado potatoes has continued around the normal level.

“So far the demand has been good,” Alderete said.

“The last couple weeks demand has been really good ... It’s shaping up to be similar to last year, I think.”

Higham characterized demand as mostly steady.

“It’s always a little bit of a roller coaster, but we hope demand is similar to last season,” Higham said.

Rockey also expected demand to be good.

Tillman noted that some varieties have been seeing more interest than others.

“Every year it seems russets kind of tend to fall off a little bit, but I’m hoping that we can have steady demand like we’ve done in the past,” Tillman said.

 

Challenges

Growers reported a few issues that have been a thorn in the side of producers around the country in recent years.

Aside from water, freight rates and labor were the factors mentioned most.

“Labor continues to be a real challenge for everyone in the valley,” Higham said. “Freight rates are still high and seem to be a worry for everyone with the holidays not too far away.”

Tillman also noted the high freight rates and said labor costs continue to rise because Colorado implemented minimum wage increases that continue through 2020.

Alderete gave a similar report.

“Freight rates, they’re not going to go down,” Alderete said. “I think they’ll hold up because of the shortage of trucks.”

He noted the ongoing labor issue has prompted the company to explore opportunities to implement more technology.

“With the economy doing as good as it is and stuff, it’s just hard to get enough labor, so that’s pushing everyone to look to more automation, and I see that continuing,” Alderete said.

“I don’t really see an end to that right now.”

 
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