Potato growers and marketing agents in the San Luis Valley agreed: The weather did its job. Now, they wonder, will the economy allow them to do theirs?
Quality of the product should not be an issue this year, marketing agents note.
“It looks like we’re going to have an excellent crop,” said Jim Ehrlich, executive director of the Monte Vista-based Colorado Potato Administrative Committee.
Weather in the mid-80s, for the most part, provided a nice finish for the maturing spuds, Ehrlich said.
“It got off to a little slow start, with more rain than normal, but we’ve had some heat toward the end of the growing season, and we needed it,” he said. “Sets are pretty large, and so is the size profile. We’ll have a good middle. We might not have larger carton sizes, because there’s a large set of tubers under the plants. Yields are going to be pretty good.”
The season was running about one or two weeks ahead of schedule in late August, growers said.
“The crop’s actually doing good,” said Les Alderete, director of grower development for Raleigh, N.C.-based L&M Cos. Inc., which ships spuds for several growers in the valley. “They haven’t had any kind of weather problems. They’re able to get into the fields weeks earlier. The potato should finish out with good yields and good size.”
In spite of the apparent earliness of the new crop, its timing appeared to be on the mark, Alderete said.
“I think the old crop is winding down a little quicker than people thought they would,” he said. “It at least didn’t drag out forever.”
L&M expects to ship as many as 1 million sacks in the upcoming year, he said.
Jere Metz, salesman for Monte Vista-based Farm Fresh Direct LLC, agreed the crop should be in about a week to 10 days ahead of normal.
“The weather has been good,” he said. “Hailstorms have for the most part left us alone.”
Jed Ellithorpe, marketing director for Center, Colo.-based Aspen Produce LLC, said the cooperative weather had surprised him.
“I’ve never seen weather more conducive to growing potatoes,” he said. “Everything looks just wonderful. The vines are really nice and healthy. They seem to be slightly ahead of where they were last year at this time.”
Wild swings in weather patterns have been absent this year, which has been crucial, Ellithorpe said.
“The stand count and the tubers are very consistent-looking, real smooth,” he said. “I can’t remember a time where we had such good luck throughout our growing season like we’ve had. Yield looks like it’s going to be really good.”
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 50-pound cartons of Grade A russet burbanks from Idaho were selling at $19.50-20 in mid-August.
Last year, growers had to deal with a major hailstorm that rumbled through the valley in mid-August, so Ellithorpe said no one was heaving any sighs of relief — yet.
“We’re not there yet. The crop’s not in the barn,” he said. “But it really didn’t seem to impact the marketability of the crop. The hailstorm we had last year caused us to have some lots of smaller sizes, but I think that was OK because the retail packs call for those smaller sizes and we were able to keep up with retail demand because of that.”
Last year’s hail damage covered about 4,000 acres and left about $32 million in damage.
The sighs of relief likely could come at the end of August, if the quiet weather patterns continued, growers noted.
“It’s a good crop,” said Randy Bache, general manager of Center-based Skyline Potato Co. “We’re going to have about the same amount of potatoes as last year because we’ve tentatively gone back to a 2-inch minimum. From a consumer and marketing standpoint, it’s a better deal. You don’t have as many smaller potatoes in the bag. It takes them off the open market.”
He noted a 1 7/8-inch minimum, which has been in place in other years, puts “(up to) 8% more product back on the market.”
David Tonso, president and sales director of Center-based Canon Potato Co., said sizing should be on the average side.
“Some fields will size up more than others,” he said. “There’s always some guys that grow their crop longer than others do. There should be plenty of size in it, but nothing exceptionally large.
“If they kill a little early and go that direction, they should be fine.”
John McCormick, partner in Monte Vista-based McCormick & Milne LLC, said he couldn’t ask for a better growing season.
“We had some frost Aug. 10, which I haven’t seen in 54 years, but the weather has been kind of weird everywhere,” he said. “But we’ve had a good growing season, but I’m expecting a good quality crop with really good size.”
As for last year?
“Thank God it’s over,” McCormick said. “It’s one of those years. Prices stated out so high. I think we kind of soured the customer because they were so high. It bit us.”
Demand was off, McCormick added.
“We took a short crop and turned it into a very long crop,” he said. “Numbers were shorter than the year before, and we had record prices. It started in the summer and carried into the first part of the year. Then it kind of went south from that point on.”
How will marketers spur demand this year?
“I think just keep the prices right for the consumer and the customer,” McCormick said. “It’s kind of a balancing act, but if you can get a good return it’s not overly.
He said that will create demand and help move the crop.
“With prices being adjusted, I think it’s going to be a decent year, really,” he said.
Amy Kunugi, general manager for Center-based organic grower Nature Fresh LLC, said her company’s 700 acres of spuds looked good.
“I’d say the kind of cooler, cloudier weather we had at end of May and early June slowed the crop down a little, but overall, things look very good,” she said. “I think the quality should be very good.”
Because of warm summer weather, sizes won’t run extra large, she said, though sizes will likely be medium sized and should be uniform.
Bill Metz, co-owner, Monte Vista-based Metz Potato Co. LLC, also predicted a good finish to the crop.
“I think it looks awfully good,” he said. “We had kind of a cool, wet spring, but once we got started we’re looking at one whale of a crop this year.”