Potato farmers look ahead

SAN LUIS VALLEY - Despite 2020 being a difficult year in many respects, San Luis Valley potato growers have been able to raise a very good looking crop this season. The warmer than normal weather being one of the reasons for the healthy fields. “It’s been dry but irrigation supplies have held up pretty well. We did have a frost, it affected a few fields the first of July but I think the impact has been somewhat minimal,” said James Ehrlich who is the Executive Director for the Colorado Potato Administration Committee.

Ehrlich shared that they are hoping for a good yield this year but it will depend on how well the harvest weather corporates. “If we get a bunch of rain or inclement weather at the wrong time it could affect us but it’s looking really good,” commented Ehrlich.

COVID-19 has also been affecting potato growers warehouses in the Valley. “When it (COVID-19) first hit we had a huge demand, and the warehouses had to work a lot of extra hours. There was a large increase in shipments. Probably about a 30 percent increase in shipments in March and April. But we got through that, without any sickness. But then I think after people got tired of being at home too much in May we had an outbreak at a couple of the warehouses. An outbreak is just two cases or more,” said Ehrlich further sharing, “It’s been hard to keep the employees in the warehouses healthy and safe. But we’re trying our best to do that. Following CDC guidelines and that’s all we can do. We can’t control what they do when they go home.”

Ehrlich shared that this harvest season is also going to present similar challenges. Making sure that harvest crews have the right protective equipment, are maintaining social distancing, and are washing their hands to prevent spreading the virus. The Colorado Department of Agriculture has recently put out some guidelines that the state has issued.

The increased demand for potatoes in March and April meant good news for potato growers in the Valley. “I think one of the things we’ve discovered is fresh potato sales are up from March until now. For a while they were up 30 percent. I think now they’re still up 15 percent. What’s really happened is that people are working from home and they’ve learned to cook from home again. Potatoes are a staple for people that have time to cook at home so we’ve been really fortunate that way. We hope people continue to realize how nutritious potatoes are for them,” said Ehrlich.

The higher demand has been good for the potato farmers in the Valley as we are  primarily a fresh market producer. Ninety-seven(97) percent of the potatoes grown in the Valley go to retail, or institutions such as schools or hospitals. Processed potato growers have not faired as well and the shutdown of the food service industry definitely hurt their markets.

When asked how the school shutdowns impacted Valley farmers Ehrlich answered saying, “It remains to be seen what will happen with schools reopening. But it would have had more of an impact. What happened was the USDA developed some programs to buy fresh potatoes and other fresh fruits and vegetables to help the Ag industry and also to get food to people who need it.” Ehrlich shared how it was designed to help kids who may not be getting proper nutrition at home and depend on school for regular meals.

As farmers get ready to head into harvest Ehrlich shared that it is hopeful. “I think potato farmers have had good prices and demand. People are eating at home. All these signs are good for us. Our crops should be better than last year for sure. It would really surprise me if it wasn’t. Prices are strong. I think we’re set for a pretty good year,” said Ehrlich