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SLV spud acreage trimmed, new varieties on grower horizons

by Kathleen Thomas Gaspar | September 07, 2010
MONTE VISTA, CO — Potato growers in Colorado's San Luis Valley have cut back slightly in their planted acreage again this season, working to bring balance to the supply-and-demand and the production-returns equations.

According to Jim Ehrlich, executive director of the Colorado Potato Administrative Committee, 55,800 acres of potatoes were planted for the 2010-11 shipping season. That compares to 2009’s 57,000 acres and to just under 72,000 acres as recently as 2002.

The acreage has been reduced voluntarily by members of United Fresh Potato Growers of Colorado, which organized several years ago to bring about an orderly flow of potatoes to the marketplace.

Mr. Ehrlich said that as acreage has been cut, growers have started focusing on other center-plate issues, including the introduction of new varieties to the area.

"Colorado is not just stuck on the russet Burbank," Mr. Ehrlich said of a longtime favorite. “Our growers are open to a stable of varieties developed for longer season and for shorter season.”

Research by the Colorado State University’s Agricultural Experiment Station near Center, CO, has given consumers choices that range from disease- resistant russet Norkotahs to the colorful and antioxidant-rich Purple Majesty.

Project priorities have been reaffirmed for 2010, and Mr. Ehrlich said that a recent field day at the research center provided scientists a platform to present their work not only on the new varieties but also on pressure- bruising control, storage characteristics, cultivar management and how specific varieties are grown in Colorado, and disease management.

Results are not always immediately apparent, but in the case of consumer awareness and acceptance, inroads can be tracked. “After four years of commercial distribution, we are seeing measurable consumer interest in the Purple Majesty,” said Mr. Ehrlich. “Same thing with our fingerlings,” he added of the small specialty spuds of different shapes and variety of colors.

“And now the USDA is changing standards, allowing mixed varieties to be packed together,” he continued. “This will create a lot of opportunities for shippers.” The standard has not yet been set, but Mr. Ehrlich said that it has been tacitly approved.

Increased marketing opportunities will be welcomed by shippers who have seen the foodservice market segment for potatoes fall off due to the nation’s sluggish economy. Retail remains steady, however, and exports are an important component.

Mr. Ehrlich said that moving more potatoes into Mexico is “our number one trade priority.” He added, “We offer a good opportunity for Mexican consumers to have a consistent, year-round supply.”

Shipments of all potato products into Mexico increased by slightly more than 11 percent between July 2007 and June 2008. That increase came in spite of continued restrictions on exports to the 26-kilometer “frontier zone” that Mexico has placed on such imports.

Mr. Ehrlich said that negotiations are “ongoing,” with the Mexican government expected to ease trade restrictions, and that the USDA’s Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service is involved as Mexico conducts pest risk assessment.

“They are essentially holding us to seed export standards for table stock,” Mr. Ehrlich said. “The administration has said agriculture exports are important and trade is important, and we need to make Washington put its money where its mouth is.”

But he noted that U.S. Rep. John Salazar (D-CO) “has worked very hard on this issue,” and Mr. Ehrlich said that “getting the ear of [U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom] Vilsack needs to be a priority.”

Mr. Ehrlich said that the potato industry has been “having discussions about how to go after farm bill funding earmarked for specialty crops. We need to focus on something that affects everyone to some degree.”

(For more on San Luis Valley potatoes, see the Sept. 6, 2010, issue of The Produce News.)