Colorado Potato History
The San Luis Valley:
Agriculture has long been the basis of the economy in the San Luis Valley. Unique in world topography, the elevation of the valley floor is 7600 feet above sea level.
The San Luis Valley is a large, flat intermountain valley that varies from 20 to 50 miles in width and is about 100 miles north to south. All crops are grown with irrigation water whose source is the abundant snow in the surrounding mountains.
Crops are irrigated by some surface flooding or mainly by center pivot sprinklers. The principal crops grown here are potatoes, alfalfa, native hay, barley, wheat, and vegetables like lettuce, spinach and carrots. The Valley's spring and summer are filled with warm, sunny days and cool nights, the combination for a perfect growing season. The cool weather also contributes to the smoothness of the skin and reduces second-growth roughness. This isolated alpine desert with its cold winters helps eliminate or reduce pest and disease problems, reducing our need for many pesticides.
The harvest begins in September with about 98 percent of the crop going into storage before being shipped. An integrated pest program funded by the area growers reduces aphid populations dramatically as well as the disease leafroll that aphids transmit.The soil in the Valley is a fertile, loose-packed loam. This quality is necessary because potatoes grow in the ground and the soil must be able to shift easily to allow for the potato's growth. Because the Valley receives less than seven inches of rain a year, it qualifies as a desert and must be irrigated.A natural underground water aquifer, recharged from runoff from heavy snowfall in the nearby mountains, offers a plentiful irrigation source. The modern center pivot sprinkler, used by almost all growers in the San Luis Valley, allows the grower to control the irrigation. The potato has become a staple on more than the American dinner plate. Potatoes pop up in jokes, greeting cards and toys, underscoring how much a part of our lives the potato has become. The Incas in Peru were probably the first to grow potatoes in about 200 B.C. Spanish conquistadors exploring the New World spied Indians in South America feasting on the strange plant and took samples home, where Europeans received it with fear. The potato was shunned for years because it was from the same family as the deadly night shade plant. Before the end of the sixteenth century families of Basque sailors began to cultivate potatoes along the Biscay coast of Northern Spain.
Sir Walter Raleigh changed the potato's path in the early 16th century when he began growing 40,000 acres of the plant in Ireland. The potato was accepted as part of a daily diet along with buttermilk, which today's nutritionists say is a good mix. Over the years potatoes became a major food source in Ireland. In 1845-46 late blight, a fungus, destroyed the potato crop leading to the disaster of the Irish Potato Famine. Many Irishmen immigrated to this country, packing their love of potatoes with them.
It wasn't until Benjamin Franklin attended a dinner in France where 20 potato dishes were served that America's love affair with potatoes began. Franklin began growing what he called the ultimate vegetable. When President Thomas Jefferson served potatoes in the White House, the vegetable was destined for success.
In October 1995, the Potato became the first vegetable grown in Space. NASA and the University of Wisconsin, Madison, experimented with growing potatoes in space with the goal of feeding future astronauts on long voyages or future space colonies.
Transporting Our Potatoes:
The San Luis Valley's central location helps with crop distribution. Transportation has changed much since the late 1800s when the vegetables were hauled by wagon to mining camps. Then in the early 1880s, railroads serviced the area, sending shipments to farther markets.
In the 1960s, refrigerated semi-trailers began taking 97 percent of the San Luis Valley potato crop to its ever-expanding markets. Now a trailer can be loaded in the afternoon and deliver a shipment of potatoes to Dallas or Kansas City, for example, by the next morning.
Today's agri-businessmen have changed from yesterday's farmers who turned their crop over to a buyer or dealer to sell. New generation Potato Growers and Shippers now market their own crops or store them in cooperative warehouses with other growers for future sale.
About 22 major potato warehouses pack and ship potatoes in the Valley. Using ultra-modern equipment, potatoes can go from storage to warehouse to truck any day during the shipping season without exposure to the outdoors. About 95 percent of the crop is shipped to the nation's fresh market, making us the #2 fresh potato shipper in the U.S.