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Colorado's year-to-date potato movement ahead of 2010

by Kathleen Thomas Gaspar | January 18, 2011
MONTE VISTA, CO -- Heightened demand created by a nationwide shortage of potatoes has resulted in increased shipments for San Luis Valley shippers, according to figures provided by the Colorado Potato Administrative Committee's Jan. 11 edition of Spud Facts.

Colorado sheds had seen 12,389 2010 crop loads shipped through December, compared to 11,955 loads during the same time in 2009. In fact, the 2010 number was the highest in at least five years.

Russet shipments made up 84 percent of the crop shipped from harvest through December, just under the number recorded in 2009. But yellows were up from 8 percent in 2009 to 10 percent in 2010-11. Bulk shipments were also up to 44 percent from 40 percent. Also of note was the increase of process shipments, from 168 loads in 2009 to 175 loads in 2010.

CPAC Executive Director Jim Ehrlich told The Produce News in early January that the shortage has brought prices up but that producers "don't want to see the prices go too high."

He added, "The economy seems to be improving slowly, and foodservice demand is increasing."

On the supply side of the equation, he said, "Hopefully our acres will stay where they are or come up minimally."

Some 55,500 potato acres were harvested in the San Luis Valley in 2010. Mr. Ehrlich said last fall that 55,800 acres were planted for the 2010-11 shipping season, compared to 2009's 57,000 acres. A voluntary cutback has been implemented by members of the United Fresh Potato Growers of Colorado. "The crop size is comparable to 2009," he said.

Exports to Mexico remain a top priority for the committee, with communication ongoing between the Colorado Potato Administrative Committee and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

"Our 2010 volume into Mexico was 1,913 loads, up significantly from 2009 and close to 45 percent of the total of potatoes marketed by the United States to that country," said Mr. Ehrlich.

Looking to the coming year's crop, Mr. Ehrlich said that 2011 promises to be active on multiple fronts. One area of concern is water.

"I'm a little concerned that we need to get more snow," he said. Some areas of the San Juan Range watershed were reporting more than 100 percent of normal snowpack, but conditions in Colorado's high country were not consistent.

"Our water subdistrict is making it more expensive for farmers unless they are in the right canal system," he said of new water regulations. And a shortfall of winter and spring precipitation could exacerbate the situation. "If we don't have [adequate] water in the [Rio Grande] River, it will be more expensive for everyone to farm."

Water is only one rising cost, however.

"Inputs will continue to rise," Mr. Ehrlich said. "Energy costs are going up, and I don't know if there is a solution to that problem."

Mr. Ehrlich noted the loss of two sheds in the San Luis Valley over the past 12 months, and he said that consolidation is likely to continue. "I think our shippers will work together as a group," he said, adding that United has "improved communications among the growers."

On the political front, Colorado's new governor, former Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, appointed John Salazar, a San Luis Valley native and former U.S. representative, as the state's commissioner of agriculture.

"John will be excellent," Mr. Ehrlich said of Mr. Salazar. "He served three terms in the U.S. Congress, and he was a member of the Colorado House of Representatives before that."

In matters of research and the environment, the potato committee is looking forward to specific food safety guidelines developed for potatoes this year. "Hopefully we will have our own set of protocol," he said.

The committee is also involved in sustainability efforts through the governor's energy office. A baseline of energy usage by the potato industry is meant to show how Colorado "measures up with the rest of the country," and Mr. Ehrlich said that area growers are being asked to respond to a survey.

"We hope to identify growers who have an interest and want to champion the cause," he stated. "Our growers are pretty energy-efficient, and we believe we will measure up well."