Hot and dry weather has slowed this fall’s San Luis Valley’s potato crop, and many growers in late August said they were still waiting to begin digging.

Although several said the harvest would begin five to seven days later than usual, at least one grower had potatoes that were ready for digging in August.

Worley & McCullough Inc., Monte Vista, Colo., started harvesting russets on Aug. 22, said Trampas McCormick, manager.

Potato quality looked good in late August, McCormick said.

The size profile was small, he said, but larger sizes should be available later in the season as potatoes in the ground size up.

“We’ll have some really good size in the crop,” he said.

David Tonso, partner at shipper Cañon Potato Co., Center, Colo., predicted about normal overall sizing.

Some new-crop potatoes started shipping on Aug. 22, he said.

“We’ve got some starting early, but the majority won’t start until after Labor Day,” he said.

Sizing was a bit smaller in late August than at the same time a year earlier, but growers were planning to wait an extra week before harvesting so potatoes could size up, Tonso said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service reported in its Aug. 25 Vegetables and Melons Outlook that crop reporters in Colorado said a few days earlier that 89% of the crop was in fair or good condition.

Jim Ehrlich, executive director of the Colorado Potato Administrative Committee, Monte Vista, said he expects to see an overall average crop.

He expects overall sizing to be average, with quite a bit of variability throughout the valley.

Steve Tillman, manager, grower-shipper Monte Vista Potato Grower Co-op Association, Monte Vista, also said growers were expecting average crops with average sizing.

Most of the association’s potatoes are russets, but it markets some yellows, and Tillman said he hopes to have a small volume of reds this year.

Mark Bisel, owner and sales manager for shipper Apex Produce Co. LLC, Center, said a small hailstorm hit crops in August, but the vines already had been killed, so it didn’t appear to affect the potatoes.

He expected digging to begin between Sept. 10-15.

Bill Metz, owner, Metz Potato Co. LLC, Monte Vista, said on Aug. 31 that he expected to begin digging about Sept. 15, about five days later than normal.

Sizing looked good in late August, he said.

“From what I’m digging and seeing, it’s the same (sizing) as last year,” Metz said.

Colorado growers expect a good harvest, with good quality potatoes, but slightly lower yields, said Dave Yeager, vice president of new business development, Farm Fresh Direct of America, Monte Vista.

Slow sales, high prices

McCormick said early San Luis season sales were slow, perhaps because so much of the U.S. was experiencing extremely hot weather.

“Nobody wants to cook when it’s 90 degrees-plus everywhere,” he said. “It’s easier to do fast food.”

Ehrlich said potato demand has been steady over the years, and he expects it to remain so this year, though demand could fall a bit if prices are high.

“They were very high last year,” he said. “If they are too high, it’ll affect demand.”

In late August, prices were higher than they were a year earlier. On Aug. 30, 50-pound cartons of U.S. No. 1 Idaho-grown Burbank russet potatoes sized 50, 60 or 70 were priced at $29 at the Los Angeles terminal market, the USDA reported.

A year earlier, similar cartons were priced at $16-18.

Tonso said he expected prices to drop to a “more realistic level” and stabilize within the first half of September.

“Prices are coming down,” Tonso said. “There’s been a gradual decline in pricing, but we’re coming off a summer with extremely tight supplies.”

Tonso said demand in late August was strong for the potatoes his company was shipping from northern Colorado, and he expected it to remain strong.

Potatoes remain a good value in the produce department, which helps the industry keep demand strong, Ehrlich said.

With U.S. consumers already using about 130 pounds of fresh and processed potatoes each year, there’s not a whole lot of room to grow demand, he said.