MONTE VISTA— Senator Cory Gardner visited Monte Vista last Monday, July 1 on a tour around the San Luis Valley to receive updates on local agriculture. Gardner and two of his staff toured the local potato processing facility Grower–Shipper Inc. with local industry representatives CEO/President Jamey Higham and Operations Manager Lee Jackson of Farm Fresh Direct; Jim Ehrlich, director of the Colorado Potato Administrative Committee, Moe Bond with Grower-Shipper and Farm Fresh of Colorado and Miguel Diaz of Martinez Farms.
Gardner followed the potato processing through cleaning, sorting and shipment, including observing the x-ray machine capable of taking up to a million photos per minute to detect internal problems with potatoes which might not be visible to the eye. He also observed the sorting machines that determine which potatoes are used for shipping to restaurants and which are bagged for retail consumers. Gardner asked about the process to ship directly from the processing facility to local retail stores in the San Luis Valley, with Ehrlich explaining it is largely dependent on the store’s requirements.
Gardner asked who owns the potatoes once they are placed in storage and was told the farmers own them until they are shipped for retail and the process from there varies based on who ships the potatoes. Gardner asked about what varieties are largely being processed now and he was told mostly Russets during this time of year but harvest will bring a more wide variety, with Gardner reflecting on using purple Rockey Farms potatoes at a local foods Senate lunch in 2018. Gardner also inquired about a previous plan to use a form of potato-based molasses in mine cleanup near Summitville; Ehrlich answered although it would have been an effective method the transportation costs made it unfeasible.
Higham answered Gardner’s inquiry about the recent tariff changes in the United States’ trade negotiations with China not currently affecting the local potato market other than slightly increased packaging costs, but pointed out a significant portion of the crops grown in Colorado go to Mexico but local growers are not receiving a fair deal. Higham pointed out a three-year deal in 2002 negotiated as an exchange for avocados has resulted in avocados being a billion dollar industry once imported into the US, but potatoes are not receiving similar prices in Mexico. “Yeah, I haven’t heard of a two dollar potato,” Gardner agreed, comparing them to the high price of avocados. Ehrlich requested Gardner keep pressure on the USDA to address the disproportionate issues.
Ehrlich also thanked Gardner for his role in putting more funding in a potato breed research program local growers and the CSU research center have been using. Ehrlich answered another of Gardner’s research inquiries regarding how to improve research by pointing out for any other grant programs Gardner has the opportunity to oversee; 50/50 matching grant funds are difficult for local growers to meet so a smaller matching percentage or different format of grant would be appreciated.
The senator asked several other questions about the water conditions in the Rio Grande, how much water is required for the crops and how holidays affect potato sales. Local growers also encouraged Gardner to address the huge labor issue that will continue to negatively impact local farmers.