Plenty of potatoes can be found in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, where farmers grow red, yellow and even purple spuds. Each year, potato growers plant and harvest between 50,000 and 60,000 acres of the crop, securing Colorado’s spot as one of the nation’s leading states in potato production.
“We’re actually the second-largest shipper of fresh potatoes in the country,” says Jim Ehrlich, executive director of the Colorado Potato Administrative Committee (CPAC), which serves as a marketing board for potatoes in the San Luis Valley. “We raise enough potatoes to feed nearly 17.5 million people each year.”
San Luis Valley Farmers
Though potatoes are grown elsewhere in Colorado, the San Luis Valley is the state’s primary region for the crop. This southern Colorado region is unique, Ehrlich says, with mountain ranges and high elevations up to 7,600 feet, as well as plenty of sunlight throughout the year, moderate temperatures and low humidity. Because the climate is dry, farmers use irrigation for their crops grown in the fertile valley.
“There are about 150 potato growers in this part of the state,” Ehrlich says. “For 2016, we are growing about 51,000 acres.”
One of those growers is Mark Peterson, whose family-owned farm, Peterson Farms LLC, raises around 450 acres of russet potatoes for fresh-market use. He also chairs CPAC.
“These fresh potatoes are what you see in the grocery stores and eat in restaurants,” Peterson explains.
The third-generation farmer runs Peterson Farms with his brother, Greg, growing russets along with rotation crops of malting barley, used by Coors Brewing Company to make beer, and other crops such as oats, rye, alfalfa and buckwheat to nourish the soil.
Overall, the farm has 900 acres of irrigated production, according to Peterson.
“We do most of the work ourselves; we only have one full- time employee,” Peterson says. “Every year, we usually harvest between 18 and 20 million pounds of potatoes with around 80 percent of that sent to the warehouse to be packed. We have packing facilities in the San Luis Valley that package potatoes into consumer packs like what you see in grocery stores, or boxes that mainly go to restaurants.”
Dozens of Varieties
Ehrlich says more than 70 varieties of potatoes are growing in the San Luis Valley. Colorado State University has an extensive breeding program, with a station located in the San Luis Valley, researching new and improved potato varieties.
And many of those potatoes travel far and wide through international export markets.
“Our primary export market is Mexico,” he says. “We have a really good market there and ship about 10 percent of our crop to Mexico each year.”
Helping to feed not only the nation but also the world, Ehrlich notes the nutritional benefits potatoes have to offer.
“Potatoes are healthy for you,” he says. “For example, they have more potassium than two bananas and provide half your daily requirement of vitamin C.”