By Helen Smith | Rio Grande Basin Roundtable

THE San Luis Valley offers one of the most nutritious and affordable food products there is: the potato.

As the largest and highest commercial agriculture valley in the world, the region is also the second largest producer of fresh market potatoes in the nation, boasting over 150 potato growers that raise more than 70 varieties.  According to the Colorado Department of Agriculture, there is an average of over two billion pounds of potatoes grown in the region annually.

As a high alpine desert, the Valley has warm days and cool nights that make an ideal environment for growing potatoes. The climate has also proven effective for pest and disease control. As the only area in the United States that has quarantine for late blight, the San Luis Valley remains free of the disease, due in large part to the inspection of all local and imported seed and other processes. The result is a very high quality, resilient, fresh market product.

What makes the industry even more remarkable is that producers are working with an increasingly limited water supply due to drought conditions and other external pressures such as water export schemes. What makes the situation even more interesting is that agriculture is the primary economic driver in the Rio Grande Basin with roughly 515,300 acres of irrigated land. However, producers have become very innovative in the way they have approached irrigation methods as well as raising alternative crops. 

One method for reducing water usage is the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP). The Rio Grande Water Conservation District website notes that CREP is defined and administered by the United States Department of Agriculture – Farm Service Agency (USDAFSA) through the authority of the 2014 Farm Bill (Conservation Title).

In general, CREP allows the USDA, in cooperation with a local sponsoring entity, to offer an annual rental payment for a term of 15 years to producers willing to fallow a parcel(s) of land and forgo the use of the associated water right or well during that time. The goal is to foster land and water conservation. It has become increasingly clear that water must remain connected to agriculture in order to maintain a sustainable food supply. In fact, there is statewide data from a Colorado State University survey that suggests 68 percent of Coloradans consider agriculture to be one of the top priorities for water usage during a drought. Furthermore, 95 percent believe that maintaining land and water in agriculture production is important.

Nonetheless, potatoes yield a return for the amount of resources that are put into growing them. The potato produces more calories per unit of water than almost any crop. Additionally, potatoes have more potassium than a banana (620mg) along with 26 grams of complex carbohydrates and 30 percent of the recommended daily value of vitamin C. The potato is a reliable source of nutrition that can be served in countless different ways.

However the potato industry doesn’t just provide a product that offers a wide range of nutritional value, it is also vital to the economic stability of the region and the state as a whole. Colorado’s agriculture sector employs upwards of 195,000 people and utilizes 32 million acres. Agriculture is also one of Colorado’s top economic pillars and generates approximately $47 billion annually. In 2020 alone, Colorado potatoes had an economic impact of $259 million. Not only does the potato industry provide a nutritious product, it is a vital piece to Colorado and the San Luis Valley economies.

Producers in the San Luis Valley face everyday challenges head-on. Because of efforts to maximize the use of resources in an efficient manner, the region still exports arguably one of the best products in the nation. The potato industry is one of the cornerstones of the San Luis Valley way of life. The future of the industry will depend on those who support it.

Photo: potato field near Monte Vista