San Luis Valley Potato Shipments Gain Momentum

Potato Field in Bloom

Increased organic acreage and quality crop position the Valley for a profitable season.

With 350 days of sunshine a year, at an elevation of 7,600 feet above sea level, Colorado’s San Luis Valley is situated between the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo Mountains and provides a beautiful setting and ideal conditions for growing incomparable potatoes.

This is the highest and largest alpine valley in the world where commercial crops are grown, and that 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. Combine those features with a great 2016 growing season, and good water runoff available for irrigation, then the result is a good quality crop with steadily increased volume for buyers to enjoy as the season progresses.

Gaining Traction

Jim Ehrlich

Jim Ehrlich of CPAC

Although the overall San Luis Valley potato acreage has remained relatively stable in recent years, one notable change is the increase in certified organic acres, according to Jim Ehrlich, executive director of the Monte Vista, CO-based Colorado Potato Administrative Committee (CPAC).

Last season, certified organic potato acres made up close to 8 percent of the total. Shippers have been able to respond to the increasing interest from buyers and consumers alike for organics. While Colorado ranks as the second-largest fresh potato-producing state in the United States, Ehrlich points out that it is also the No. 2 state in organic, fresh potato production.

Statistics from CPAC for 2016 show overall planted acreage is down by less than 1 percent, at about 51,000; down about 1,000 from 2015. Within those figures, however, the percentage of certified organics had increased.

“Colorado has an advantage because of reduced disease pressure and the lack of late blight that other areas face,” explains Ehrlich, “and now we are one of the bigger players in organics.” One grower-shipper, for example, Maverick Potato Co., has converted 100 percent of its crop to organic.

Maverick Potato Co. co-owner Roger Christensen reports he has completed the three-year transition required to certify all of his acreage organic. Production through the warehouse is about 75 percent in Russets, with the remaining in red and gold varieties. Also offering a variety of packaging sizes under the Maverick brand and in private labels, “we’re looking to expand more, becoming a year-round supplier in organics,” says Christensen.

Skyline Potato Co. in Center, CO, has been marketing organic potatoes for nearly 20 years and has developed a wide customer base and

Linda Weyers and Savannah Schlaufman

Linda Weyers and Savannah Schlaufman of Colorado Potato Administrative Committee

loyal following. “We are a full-service potato company, with a year-round supply of potatoes – both conventional and organic,” says Les Alderete, Skyline’s general manager.

Purely Organic is a separate packing facility dedicated strictly to organic volume. The company markets a portion of its organic volume through Robinson Fresh (Eden Prairie, MN) using the Tomorrow’s Organics label. At the same time, the company sells its own Nature Fresh organic label through Skyline.

Monte Vista, CO-based Farm Fresh Direct of America increased its volume in organics gradually in recent years in response to customer demand, according to Lee Jackson, operations manager. Other Colorado shippers offering organics in their line include RPE Colorado in Monte Vista, White Rock Specialties LLC in Mosca, and Canon Potato LLC in Center.

Whether organic or conventional, more than 80 percent of the San Luis Valley spud volume is in Russets. Among the remaining acreage, demand for yellow potato varieties has increased the valley’s percentage planted in yellows, comprising about 15 percent of the total.

Ehrlich stresses, however, that Colorado can grow any kind of potato that buyers or consumers desire. Pink-skinned potatoes, purple varieties, and unusually shaped potatoes are getting the attention of a full range of end-users – from executive chefs to “foodies” to creative home cooks seeking new, imaginative ideas for their families or for entertaining guests.

Fingerling potatoes are getting more notoriety, and San Luis Valley shippers have increased their acreage accordingly. Farm Fresh Direct of America and Center, CO-based Mountain Valley Produce LLC are two of the fingerling handlers. “There’s also more and more demand for petites,” adds Ehrlich.

Freight Advantages and Buying Local

Adding to the potatoes’ allure is the Valley’s centralized location in the U.S., which provides a natural freight advantage and is becoming even more appealing with the continued popularity of locally grown. This area is also a natural fit for the multitudes that are “going green.”

“We are more sustainable than any growing area,” stresses Ehrlich. “Buying Colorado equals less ‘food miles’ and a reduced carbon footprint with our natural freight advantage. We are justifiably proud of our state and of our unique region.”

“People want to support locally grown to help cut fuel usage and cut costs,” notes Skyline’s Alderete. “That’s good for all of us.” One-stop potato shipping 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 fresh and reduces shrink,” emphasizes Jere Metz, salesman at Farm Fresh Direct of America, which markets both conventional and organic potatoes year-round.

“Delivery can sometimes even be done overnight to Dallas, for example,” continues Metz, describing the 800-mile trip from the San Luis Valley to some Dallas-Fort Worth delivery points.

Colorado also holds a freight advantage in shipping to Mexico, which has been a good market for San Luis Valley shippers — despite the fact that for years potato shipments have been restricted to a 26-kilometer “buffer zone” inside Mexico’s borders.

As potato harvest was in full swing, shippers were paying attention to the ongoing negotiations with Mexico for market openings with that country. It was reported in late summer that Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto issued two decrees that made the potato industry hopeful about further progress toward loosening up Mexico’s borders to allow more export from the U.S.

Private Labeling‭‬

More potato packaging options in the smaller sizes will persist in gaining popularity, according to the predictions of select Colorado potato shippers. Skyline Potato’s Alderete says the shrink of packaging sizes coincides with the shifting buying habits of consumers — especially the Millennials, whom he claims are opting for more convenience and are not buying the larger bags of potatoes.

“You’ll see more of the smaller packaging (the 3- and 5-pound sizes) and smaller-sized potatoes becoming more popular.”

John Pope, vice president of sales and marketing for MountainKing Potatoes, based in Houston with offices in Monte Vista, CO, also notices more packaging size options. “The general trend is an increase in smaller package sizes, more shopping trips to the store, and buying new items for the experience of eating,” he notes.

In addition, the greater percentage of San Luis Valley potatoes being packed under private labeling reflects the trend of retail chains and strong independent stores choosing to market products with their own brand. Increased brand recognition contributes to consumer loyalty, and packers are working to meet this increasing need of retailers.

“We are definitely moving more of our product in private labeling,” notes Alderete, while adding, “We are flexible and do whatever we can to meet our customers’ needs.” He also notes, “We have a good following in Mexico and do a lot of custom packaging for customers there.”

Whether in large or small packages, conventional or organic, “Potatoes are a good food value — even during market years when prices are a little higher,” says Farm Fresh Direct’s Metz. “And when food prices are high — and they are predicted to continue to increase — potatoes are perceived as an even better value.”

Rick Ellithorpe, co-owner of Center, CO-based Aspen Produce LLC, agrees. “Consumers need to be reminded that potatoes are still one of the greatest values in the produce department, and they need more education relating to versatility.”

According to Ray Keegan of American Produce Co. LLC, a Denver-based receiver that services retail and foodservice accounts, “Colorado potatoes are fresher, they have more flavor and variety, and they are convenient and economical.”

What’s New In San Luis Valley?

Maverick Potato Co.,
Center, CO

Roger Christensen & Steve Cottom

Roger Christensen of Maverick Potato Co. and Steve Cottom of Cottom Farm

Beginning its fourth year of business, the company has made the substantial jump to 100 percent certified organic product. According to Roger Christensen, co-owner, the company is handling organic Russets, yellows, and reds.

Packed in 3-, 5-, and 10-pound poly and consumer bags as well as 50-pound cartons, another packing option will probably be added when Maverick purchases “a form-sealing bagger for 1.5-pound organic creamer Russets, yellows, and reds,” according to Christensen. Maverick offers its own label and will also ship under private brands.

The transition to all-organic has been completed in stages, with 15 percent of the company’s production organic in 2014 and 50 percent last season. Among other facility upgrades, Maverick also built cold storage for its Canela-variety potatoes. Harvest and shipping were already in full swing by early fall.

Recently hired as shed foreman/fabricator is Thomas Torres, who oversees continued upgrades at the packinghouse. Christensen emphasizes, “everything we do to improve the packinghouse is with food safety in mind. That is our number one concern.” Both the growing operations and the packinghouse are USDA Harmonized GlobalGAP-certified.

Among its customer base, Maverick works closely with a major retailer and packs export loads in addition to its domestic sales. Christensen has worked to maintain relationships in the domestic and Mexican markets as well as forge new ones. About 15 to 20 percent of Maverick’s potatoes were shipped to Mexico last season.

Meanwhile, with both domestic and international customers, Christensen says he thinks there is still clientele for a smaller growing, packing, and shipping organization such as Maverick Potato Co.“We are more personalized and pay attention to detail,” he says.

Skyline Potato Co.,
Center, CO

Les Alderete

Les Alderete of Skyline Potato

Les Alderete, general manager of all operations, says the company has made upgrades in its facilities and prepares to do more in the near future. A new washer was added at the Horizon facility where both organics and conventionals are packed.  In addition to Horizon, Skyline Potato operates two other packing sheds in the San Luis Valley. The Skyline headquarters facility packs strictly conventional varieties, and Purely Organic is designated for packing organics only. “We’re still looking at upgrading more machinery. We want to continue to reduce labor costs and become more efficient,” he adds. “Getting labor in the Valley is tough.”

Skyline Potato Co. markets its potatoes primarily under the Skyline and Green Giant labels, but the company also does private labeling. “We also have a good following in Mexico and do a lot of custom packing,” Alderete says, pointing out Skyline maintains year-round supplies. “We cater to our customers and pack to their individual specifications, and our growers are some of the best in the Valley.”

Farm Fresh Direct of America,
Monte Vista, CO

The grower-owned sales and marketing cooperative of multi-generational family potato farms located around the United States has named Jamey Higham as president and chief executive. Higham was most recently vice president of sales for Potandon Produce in Idaho Falls, ID. Previously, he held several other senior management positions at Potandon, including vice president of foodservice sales and director of new business development.

The beginning of his produce career was with Walker Produce as a logistics manager, and he then became a salesperson at Pillsbury, for Green Giant Fresh. He took a leap into the automotive world and held several management roles with the Ford division of the Ford Motor Co., “but my heart was in produce, and I came back to potatoes,” says Higham.

Jim Knutzon will remain at Farm Fresh Direct of America as chief executive until his retirement in November. Higham currently sits on the United Fresh Government Relations Council and was also a member of United Fresh Produce Industry Leadership Class 13. He and his family will relocate to Colorado.

Packing an average of 5 million cwt. per season, Farm Fresh Direct of America is reportedly the largest grower-owned potato cooperative in the U.S.

Canon Potato LLC, Center, CO

When this company was purchased late last summer by Palm Beach, FL-based Woerner Holdings Inc., it brought together two well-established potato-shipping facilities that now provide year-round supplies. This acquisition followed the purchase of Springdale, AR-based H.C. Schmieding Produce Co. in April 2015, which also markets potatoes out of Colorado. Canon Potato had been in operation for nearly 60 years when it closed in 2013 but resumed business when it was purchased.

“Colorado has a long history of growing, packaging, and shipping some of the finest quality potatoes in the nation, and we look to continue to expand our operations in the San Luis Valley,” notes owner Lester Woerner.

Canon ships Russets, reds, and yellows as well as value-added microwavable potatoes, organics, and specialties. For the 2016-17 season, “We plan to carry on with the good reputation that Canon has had since the late 1950s,” emphasizes White, adding that the packinghouse has been upgraded with new equipment. A new Hagan carton machine and bagging equipment offer a variety of packaging that includes 3-, 5-, 8-, and 10-pound poly bags, 50-pound paperbags and cartons, as well as 2,000-pound totes.

Aspen Produce LLC, Center, CO

Aspen Produce

Mike Bonemeyer, Dwayne Weyers, Jon Gonzalez, and Jed Ellithorpe of Aspen Produce

A new label that draws attention to its attractive Colorado location is now being test-marketed with a few retail customers, according to Jed Ellithorpe, who manages marketing for Aspen. The label features blue as the dominant color with red and white accents. Ellithorpe explains that research has shown that focusing on the appeal of Aspen’s Colorado location will tend to increase customer loyalty.

This is one of a multitude of major changes the company has completed in recent years. Last year, a complete renovation of the offices resulted in a totally new look of the headquarters. The open floor-plan has the bonus of better communication among the staff, according to co-owner Rick Ellithorpe. New equipment in the shed gave the company more sizing flexibility, and about a third of the storage area is now refrigerated. “And we’re starting to see the fruits of our efforts,” he says, which also included major staff changes.

Mike Bonemeyer, who had worked in Aspen’s warehouse for several years, returned and is behind the sales desk. Bonemeyer both works in sales and assists with phytosanitary protocol. Sitting next to Bonemeyer is Jon Gonzalez, who works in quality control and assists in some human resources work.

Ellithorpe emphasizes that Aspen stands above its competition because “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. 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.

“Most of our sales staff has seen, touched, and maybe tasted what they are selling. They have probably also watched the potatoes while they were growing,” he says.

Ellithorpe adds, “We are one of the few remaining independent shippers in the area not affiliated with a larger cooperative or corporate sales organization, which guarantees personal attention to customers.”