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Organics help boost San Luis Valley spud acreage

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With the last of the 2016 crop reported to have shipped by late July and early August, Colorado’s San Luis Valley was prepping for new crop loads to go out the door just weeks later.

Most sheds indicated they’d start shipping during the latter weeks of August or in early September, with the consensus among grower-shippers that the 2017 crop was looking good.

According to Jim Ehrlich, executive director of the Colorado Potato Administrative Committee, based in Monte Vista, there are additional acres in production this year. Ehrlich said a flyover showed 51,900 potato acres, up 800 from 2016.

“The people I’ve talked to say we’re looking at a good crop,” he noted. Mid-August rains had not caused any serious delays or issues.

Organics, though a small percentage of the overall crop, continue to make gains in the region, with several grower-shippers expanding their operations to include organics in multiple colors and varieties. Ehrlich said CPAC does not have data on organic acres, but he noted production is up.

All russets varieties remained the primary potato shipped from the region, making up approximately 95 percent of the annual shipments. Ehrlich said growers have increased their overall red production slowly but consistently in recent years, and that potato now accounts for between 5 and 7 percent of the crop.

Yellows are also increasing and are now nearly 10 percent of production. Fingerlings and specialties account for about 3 percent, Ehrlich said.

All in all, the annual production has remained steady in recent years, and Ehrlich said 2016 came in with 14 million cwt of potatoes.

Commenting on a number of research projects being conducted by Colorado State University’s Research Center north of Monte Vista and also on campus at CSU in Fort Collins, Ehrlich said a specialty crop block grant has facilitated studies of soil health and also possible mitigation for disease during storage.

Researchers Courtney Jahn and Jane Stewart, both from the Fort Collins center, “have done a lot of sampling and are looking at different rotations,” Ehrlich said of the soil health study. In addition to green manure, rotation crops such as quinoa and hemp are under consideration, as is a three-year rotation rather than two-year.

At the SLV research center, Dr. Sastry Jayanty will embark on a project in 2018 to look at tuber coatings for storage, which Ehrlich said “may help reduce the respiration rate” of the spuds before shipping.

Additional research is being done on black leg by Dr. Amy Charkowski, he said.

The director also tackled the issue of NAFTA two days prior to the onset of U.S. talks with Mexico and Canada in Mexico City.

Mexico is a major market for Colorado spuds, which are limited to a 26-kilomter buffer zone at the border. A recent decision handed down by a Mexican district court judge to continue the ban on potatoes from the United States to receivers in most of Mexico “ignores science and directly threatens the role of the Mexican plant health regulatory authority, SAGARPA,” according to a release from the National Potato Council on Aug. 8. The Council went on to say, “The ruling contradicts the conclusions of SAGARPA, USDA and third-party experts that have reviewed the potential impact of the importation of fresh potatoes from the United States to Mexico.”

Ehrlich said, “I think NAFTA has been beneficial, but it needs updating. A lot of things have changed over the years. We would like to see our trade issue become part of the NAFTA negotiations, at least as a sidebar.”

He lauded the NPC for “having done a very good job” in addressing the issue, and he said Colorado congressional leaders spoke with Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue about the matter before the delegation departed for Mexico.

“We want our trade issue addressed so it’s fixed,” Ehrlich said.