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Potato acreage in Colorado's San Luis Valley is at 54,000 this season The valley experienced a cold spring and dry, windy summer, with some growers delayed. Early loads started leaving the area the third week of August. (Photo by Kathleen Thomas Gaspar)

MONTE VISTA, CO - With USDA figures showing potato shipments out of the San Luis Valley were down during the 2010-11 shipping season from the previous year, the Colorado Administrative Committee in Monte Vista reported in mid-August that growers have planted 1,500 fewer acres in 2011 than in 2010.

According to Jim Ehrlich, executive director for CPAC, potato acreage this year is at 54,000, down an estimated 1,500 acres from 2010.

Mr. Ehrlich also said that a good portion of this year's crop was coming in later than normal, and as Colorado started the new season, potato prices remained high.

Although several factors come into play with acreage, production costs and water shortages, as well as metered wells, are major considerations this year.

A water subdistrict has been established for the San Luis Valley, and growers are charged a per-acre fee for usage but get credit for any surface water they are able to return to the ground. With additional fees and charges, the final cost can be as high as $45 per acre-foot of water in addition to the $6 per acre fee.

Crop delays have resulted for many growers due to a cold spring and dry summer, but some fields were being harvested during the third and fourth weeks of August.

"It will be an interesting harvest," Mr. Ehrlich said on Aug. 16. "It really runs the gamut, but many fields need more time, and the crop is late. If we have favorable weather through early September, we will see an average to above-average crop. If we do not have good weather, we could have a below-average crop. We have a lot of potatoes but not enough size."

He added that some growers "have had very dry conditions, but if growers have had good water, there has been no real adversity to the crop."

In looking at the previous year, stats from the USDA indicated fewer loads went out in 2010-11 compared to the previous year. Colorado had 3,229 loads go out in April 2011 and 3,521 during April 2010. July figures for Colorado were 1,752, compared to 2,285 in July 2010.

The agriculture department also provided year-to-date figures for July 2011, which indicated 34,240 loads had gone out during the year, compared to 34,767 in 2010.

Mr. Ehrlich also discussed new variety studies being conducted by the Colorado State University Research Center north of Monte Vista. Noting that several new Colorado potato varieties are showing promise, he said that the work is made possible by a block grant program that did not fall victim to federal budget cuts.

But the Extension Service did see the retirement of its agent last year, and to ensure the position will be filled, CPAC is providing one-half of the necessary funding to find and place the staff member.

"We have to look at it as an opportunity and then make it an opportunity," Mr. Ehrlich said of the decision to partially fund the effort. "It will be an addition to the potato research program, and 50 percent of the [agent's] time will be spent researching soil health."

One downside is that CSU has said it will be 18 months before it can contribute its 50 percent of the funding.

"But we believe if we want it to be 50 percent potato-based," Mr. Ehrlich said of the position, "we should provide 50 percent of the funding. It is a long-term commitment on our part, and CSU is also committed to the research center and to this industry. Moving forward, we will have a stronger involvement in the program."

In addition, CPAC is involved in a K-12 curriculum program that is available to teachers throughout the state, with local teacher and curriculum developer, Judy Lopez, adapting the studies for each level.

The study encompasses reading, writing, communications, science and history. Older students study nutrition and economics, and all ages engage in field trips to learn more about potato farming, storage, shipping and marketing.

Ms. Lopez uses the curriculum for conservation workshops she facilitates for teachers from throughout Colorado.