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Colorado heads into 2020 with new Russet and high hopes

Colorado’s San Luis Valley, the state’s foremost potato production area, is seeing the release of a new spud variety, the Rocky Mountain Russet, this year. According to Colorado Potato Administrative Committee Executive Director Jim Ehrlich, the new season is starting on the high note of a strong market.

Speaking from his office in Monte Vista, Ehrlich said in mid-August that Colorado State University has released the Rocky Mountain Russet. Acreage is currently limited, and Ehrlich added, “It is resistant to potato virus Y so that is promising.” Also promising as harvest was ready to start were market conditions.

“The market is strong but will come under price pressure as other areas get started with their harvest,” he said. “All indications are that with the acreage planted nationally, supply and demand should remain in a decent balance this year with the potential being relatively good for growers to make a decent profit again. It is too early to know how well everyone’s crop is going to yield and if harvest weather conditions will have a negative impact yet, but we are optimistic.”

The San Luis Valley had not completely finished its 2019-20 shipping season as the new crop started coming in.

“We will likely ship about 13.3 million cwt. this year,” Ehrlich said. “That is about 10 percent less than 2018. Our 2019 crop didn’t yield as well as the exceptional crop we had in 2018.”

 Planted acreage for the 2020-21 crop was “just shy of 52,000 acres, and I think they will all be harvested,” he added.

Commenting on the growing season, Ehrlich said, “Hot and dry has been the story, [but] we have not had much weather trouble — one hailstorm on June 6 and a scattered flirt with frost on July 1, and there was really not much impact for most growers. “However, we have used a lot of water this year, and this could impact [the San Luis Valley’s aquifer] next year severely without a better snowpack.” 

 Ehrlich also looked at the impact of COVID-19 on labor, saying, “Labor is going to be a bigger issue this year than it ever has been. COVID-19 will make it hard to keep the workforce safe and healthy, and there is a shortage of workers who want to work.”

Sheds are following protocol suggestions, he said. “I am not aware of any specific changes in food safety protocol for potatoes. Our warehouses are following all the normal food safety guidelines and CDC and CDPHE guidelines to keep their workers safe.”

 As with virtually every U.S. food production area, the San Luis Valley is working to maintain business as usual during the uncertain times of the pandemic. Among its ongoing efforts are research programs carried out at the CSU Research Center north of Monte Vista.

“We are funding several new projects this year, including one that studies how we can improve our aphid monitoring program, looking at the efficacy of biologicals being used by growers to control diseases and nematodes and gene editing for Colorado potato varieties with a focus on increasing potato virus Y resistance,” said Ehrlich. 

On the marketing side of the CPAC equation, Assistant Director/Marketing Director Jessica Crowther continues building on the social media and website campaign. Crowther took on the duties of assistant director following the recent retirement of longtime AD Linda Weyers.

Looking back at the 2019 promotional year, she said CPAC had a four-pronged digital program and took part in the National Potato Board’s healthy lifestyle campaign. The promo ran into spring 2020 included videos shown on ski lifts and in lodges through a partnership with Alpine Media. Additional ad airings were on Denver CBS 4 and Fox 31.   This year, she said, “CPAC’s website has continued to rise on Google searches, and we’re excited for the progress we have made with this campaign and look forward to continuing to provide relevant content for consumers and partners alike.”

The 2020 marketing program will focus on education, continuing to provide consumers with information on potatoes, developing new recipes and again using Potatoes USA’s What Are You Eating campaign. Crowther said, the annual Potato Festival will be a bit different this year, with a “drive-thru baked potato bar” at Chapman Park. Perennial favorite Colorado Chef Jason Morse of 5280 Culinary will be on hand, and visitors can also take advantage of a potato buy, two five-pound bags for $3.

Photo: Staffing the CPAC office in Monte Vista, CO, are Executive Director Jim Ehrlich, Assistant Director Jessica Crowther and Administrative Assistant Diana Paulson. Photo courtesy of Colorado Potato Administrative Committee.

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