Originally printed in the October 2020 issue of Produce Business.
Good quality, volume predicted as San Luis Valley crop hits the market.
Colorado’s unmatched scenery, climate, and its popularity as a tourist destination often overshadow some of its less obvious assets, such as its high-quality fresh potatoes. Potato buyers are again welcoming into the market this season’s crop from the San Luis Valley in the southwestern region of the state. Situated between the San Juan and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, this region provides a perfect locale for producing some of the best potatoes on the planet. The second-largest fresh potato-producing region in the United States, the San Luis Valley has already produced early volume showing excellent quality.
With an increase in planted acreage to 52,000, up by about 2,000 over last season, harvest and shipping were hitting full stride by early October, according to Jim Ehrlich, executive director of the Monte Vista-based Colorado Potato Administrative Committee (CPAC). Ehrlich remains optimistic, predicting that overall, the demand-supply balance should satisfy both buyers and sellers. Shipments of fall-harvested San Luis Valley potatoes normally continue into early summer. About 95 percent of the crop is shipped to fresh markets locally, nationally, and internationally.
FREIGHT ADVANTAGE ADDS TO APPEAL
Domestically, the San Luis Valley’s centralized location within the United States adds to the potatoes’ appeal and provides a natural freight advantage. One-stop potato shopping available through this single growing region can be another way to save on freight costs.
“Colorado potatoes can be delivered to our customers in one or two days, which makes them fresher and reduces shrink,” emphasizes David Tonso, operations manager at Farm Fresh Direct LLC, based in Monte Vista. “Delivery can sometimes even be done overnight — to Dallas, for example.”
CPAC’s Ehrlich mentions the SLV potatoes’ growing season was mostly “hot and dry” with an early-September freeze and snow making little impact, as most of the potatoes were yet to be harvested and still safely underground.
With more than 300 days of sunshine a year and grown at an elevation of 7,600 feet, Colorado’s San Luis Valley is highest and largest alpine valley in the world where commercial crops are grown. Potatoes are planted in rich soil that contains unique mineral deposits, as the valley used to be a lakebed in the ancient past. The altitude naturally decreases the likelihood of disease and pests, minimizing the need for pesticide use. This also makes the region more favorable for organic production.
Whether organic or conventional, russet varieties remain the primary potato shipped from this region. Overall, red potato production has increased slightly, but yellows have enjoyed an even greater jump, comprising more than 10% of production. Organic acreage was actually down this season for the first time in several years. Fingerlings and other specialty varieties account for about 3% of the volume, Ehrlich reports.
ORGANIC PLANTINGS LEVEL
Several San Luis Valley shippers agree organically-grown potato acreage has leveled after some strong gains in recent years. While CPAC does not have official data on organic acres, Ehrlich notes, “Colorado has an advantage because of reduced disease pressure and the lack of late blight that other areas face. Most shippers here are now doing at least some organics.”
Skyline Potato Co., based in Center, been marketing organic potatoes for more than 25 years and has developed a wide customer base and loyal following. “We are a full-service potato company, with a year-round supply of potatoes — both conventional and organic,” says Les Alderete, general manager. “We will custom-pack to our customers’ specifications.”
With the completion of its organic packing line a few years ago, Aspen Produce LLC, in Center, continues to offer organics, with the bulk of its volume in conventionally grown spuds. “We can react to changes a lot quicker and respond to customer needs since our sales force is in the same building as the packing,” says Rick Ellithorpe, one of the principal owners. “If we have an issue with a lot, we can walk down there and see it. Other marketing entities are not present — or even in the same state — to see it.”
Other shippers offering organics in their line include RPE Colorado, in Monte Vista, Farm Fresh Direct LLC in Monte Vista, White Rock Specialties LLC in Mosca, Canon Potato LLC in Center, Monte Vista Potato Growers Coop, and Hi-Land Potatoes in Monte Vista.
Whether conventional or organic, in small consumer packs or in bulk, Colorado potatoes remain favorites among buyers — both locally and regionally. Ray Keegan of Denver-based American Produce Co., services both foodservice and retail accounts. “Colorado potatoes are fresher, they have more flavor and variety, and they are convenient and economical,” Keegan emphasizes.
MARKETING EFFORTS EDUCATE CONSUMERS
To help boost San Luis Valley potato consumption, CPAC has maintained a consistent marketing campaign. Assistant director/marketing director Jessica Crowther, continues to build on social media avenues as a primary focus of its promotion activities, proving measurable and successful results. The committee’s marketing will continue its utilization of the Facebook realm and other popular social media outlets to get its message to consumers. The 2019-20 promotional season dovetailed on the National Potato Board’s (Potatoes USA) theme that cues in on the importance of potatoes in the diet for better performance and a healthy lifestyle. “We’re excited for the progress we’ve made with this campaign, and CPAC’s website (coloradopotato.org) has continued to rise on Google searches,” she notes.
In addition, CPAC worked in a partnership with Alpine Media that aired videos on ski lifts and in lodges at popular Colorado ski areas with informational ads shown on monitors to those captured audiences. Additional ads ran on two popular Denver-based television stations.
The committee is also working nationally in coordination with the Produce for Better Health Foundation through its “Have a Plant” campaign. Features on Colorado potatoes will be distributed through this program, and one article that Crowther co-wrote, titled “Make Potatoes Part of Your Plan,” has already enjoyed widespread distribution.
Crowther also reports that CPAC has been awarded a “Specialty Crop Block Grant” that will provide additional funds to help get more fresh potatoes to younger populations. “We will be working with Denver Public Schools to set up a warehousing program which assists in distributing potatoes to schools in the city,” she explains. “We will also be meeting with a coordinated group including representatives from the city of Denver and Colorado State University, based in Fort Collins, defining and initiating a ‘Buy Local’ program.”
Back home, the popular annual San Luis Valley Potato Festival, traditionally held in mid-September to kick off the harvest season, was cancelled because of the ongoing pandemic. A few alternatives were offered that weekend, however, including a “drive-thru potato bar” at Chapman Park where the event is usually held. Celebrity Colorado Chef Jason Morse was on hand giving cooking presentations, and visitors were also offered a potato buy of two 5-lb. bags for $3.