A trip through Colorado’s San Luis Valley shows the work of millions of years of geological upheaval. Staggeringly beautiful, stretches of the majestic San Juan and Sangre de Cristo Mountains rival in beauty any range in the world. But, at the foot of these 14,000 foot giants, the reality is that you are standing in perhaps the world’s highest desert.
It is the arid ground floor of the Valley — average annual rainfall, approximately seven inches — coupled with the plentiful mountain runoff that has created one of Colorado’s and the nation’s most unique and fertile growing regions. The Valley’s alfalfa, barley, carrots, wheat and, especially potatoes, are as good as any grown in the world.
As the nation’s number two domestic shipper of potatoes, Colorado potato farmers want more of their crop sold in Mexico. In March, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Agriculture Commissioner John Salazar led a trade delegation to Mexico to explore new trade agreements that would boost agriculture exports.
“We want to get access into the interior,” Commissioner Salazar says. Currently, Colorado potato exports are limited to a 16-mile region along the border. “(Mexico’s) Deputy Minister of Agriculture Cruz told us they would be willing to listen to our proposal and we’re excited.”
On any given weekday in the Valley, a truck carrying nearly 50,000 pounds of potatoes is loaded and shipped south to the border. And, it is along the border where it is unloaded and the potatoes are sold. While Valley growers are not unhappy, they know the Colorado-Mexico potato market is just being tapped.
“With an opening to Mexico, we could easily see a four-fold increase (in exports),” state agriculture spokesman Tim Larsen says. Because of geographic proximity, “we feel we are the number one market to Mexico.”
The North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, did a lot to open up trade between the U.S. and Mexico, but there are still substantial barriers. And while there is an understanding of the issue, there is also a degree of growing frustration with these trade restrictions. “In Congress, I worked with (Mexican) President Calderon,” Salazar says, who served two terms in Congress. “Under NAFTA we were always supposed to have access.”
On the recent trade mission, Salazar, whose family has farmed the Valley for generations, spoke thoughtfully but directly to Mexican agriculture officials. “What we have proposed is that we would ask them for access to a couple of cities in the interior for a pilot program. We could limit it to one or two varieties they don’t produce in Mexico.”
Salazar believes opening up new markets in Mexico would be a win-win for U.S. sellers and Mexican consumers. Because potatoes are both a dinner staple and price-friendly, it simply makes common sense to introduce Colorado potatoes to a larger share of the Mexican market.
The Colorado-Mexico trade pipeline has been a bright spot in the state’s agriculture picture. “Mexico is our largest trading partner,” Salazar says. In fact, Colorado’s beef exports to Mexico have risen “70 percent to 80 percent in the last couple of years,” Salazar says.
Wheat exports to Mexico have been “great,” as well says the Commissioner. Bimbo, Mexico’s baking giant, has been one of Colorado’s most reliable customers. “There are just incredible bounds with Mexico,” Salazar says. All tolled, the Colorado-Mexico trade exceeds a billion dollars annually.
In recent times, Colorado farmers and ranchers have seen agriculture exports to Mexico and other international markets boom. “Our increase in trade is up 26 percent from the last year,” Salazar says. And, says the Agriculture Commissioner, if the two countries can find a way to resolve NAFTA issues, things could become even better.
“I think as long as the dollar remains weak we have a window of opportunity, not only with Mexico but other countries around the world,” Salazar says.
The Colorado Potato Administrative Committee, the governing body for the state’s potato growers, says Colorado’s crop is among the worlds’ highest quality and most nutritious. Of the state’s $40-million dollar annual harvest, all but 5 percent is consumed out of the state.
Potatoes are also one of the most durable and reliable crops planted in Colorado. They have a relatively short growing cycle — they’re one of the first big harvests in the state. And they’re a Colorado tradition.
Potatoes are also one of the best nutritional values. CPAC says Colorado potatoes, the Red, Russets and Yellows, provide fiber, antioxidants and vitamins, including Vitamin C and potassium. CPAC says the Red is the state’s most popular variety. While the Valley remains the most productive region of the state for growing potatoes, Weld County also includes potatoes as one of its important crops.
Farmers have been planting and harvesting potatoes in the Valley since long before Colorado was a state. The first seeds were brought here by Spaniards but the first potatoes were grown and consumed long before that. It was the Incas of South America that first made the potato a mealtime staple.
One benefit that potatoes have that many other crops don’t is the mechanization of the process. From planting to harvest, the human element is minimized which is a blessing based on the arduous nature of the work. But, after harvest, packaging and loading of the crop for transport brings in scores of workers across the Valley. And, as in most branches of agriculture, the labor force is predominately unskilled, immigrant labor.
Commissioner Salazar says he thinks a key to getting a bigger and more expansive market share for potatoes and other Colorado agricultural products is Hickenlooper. “He cares so much about preserving rural Colorado,” he says. And, the governor has made agriculture “one of his top priorities.”