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Colorado Seed Farm Too Tall for Pests

There probably aren’t too many potato growers in the United States who’d be all that comfortable practicing their profession at 7,600 feet above sea level, where the air is thin and the temperatures get downright cold.

That goes for insects and diseases, too.

“We’re blessed because our altitude and isolation reduces serious insect pressure,” said Monte Vista, Colo., grower Phil Smartt.

“We do not have the Colorado potato beetle here, have not had late blight for a number of years and only had it two or three years in our history.”

Smartt, who is one of the Colorado representatives on the U.S. Potato Board and a member of the Spudseed.com marketing group, began growing potatoes in Colorado’s San Luis Valley in 1977.

Home to most of Colorado’s potato production and comprised of around 65,000 acres, the valley lies in the south central part of the Centennial State.

Today, Smartt’s Blue Sky Farm grows around 550 acres of seed and fresh market potatoes under center pivot on both owned and leased land. The farm’s other major crop is feed and malt barleys, which are grown in rotation with potatoes.

Some of Smartt’s malt barley finds its way to Colorado’s famous brewery, Coors.

Declining potato markets and prices encouraged Smartt several years ago to begin growing strawberry plantlets for Florida customers, which he raises from tissue culture material propagated at Colorado State University.

While most of Smartt’s production each year is seed potatoes, some of his crop does make it into fresh markets.

Most of Smartt’s fresh market potatoes are shipped to the South and the southeastern U.S. Seed potatoes are sold to local growers and into the South, where they are grown commercially.

Blue Sky Farms grows 10 varieties of potatoes, including reds, Yukon Gold, Atlantic and several Russets, such as Norkotah L-8 and L-3, both Colorado selections, Russet Nuggets and a new variety, Rio Grande Russet, a Colorado variety.

While Colorado is known for its snow, not enough has been falling in the mountains that tower over the San Luis Valley. Valley growers depend almost wholly on snowmelt for irrigation water.

Classified as high desert, the valley receives only six to eight inches of rain a year.

“We’re certainly having some water issues here,” Smartt said. “We welcome all the snow we can get.”

Because of the drought many growers in San Luis Valley have been voluntarily cutting back on their acreage 20 to 30 percent to reduce water usage.

“Our recharge comes from river water,” Smartt said. “We’re actually not using it as irrigation but dumping it in corner ponds and drainage ditches to recharge our aquifer.” The aquifer then supplies wells with water used in the pivots.

“Fortunately, the drought has not affected my potato yields or quality,” Smartt said. “We’ve been able to manage that quite well.” One tactic has been to go to split circles. Sometimes only potatoes will be grown at half capacity in the circle and the rest of ground left fallow.

Smartt and his fellow San Luis Valley growers have not been immune to poor potato prices. “Input costs have continued to rise, and prices we receive have failed to rise accordingly. The seed markets are reacting the same as the others.”

Feeble potato markets have caused some San Luis Valley growers to consider thinking raising canola for oil to be used in biodiesel fusels, Smartt said. “But I’m not involved with that at this time.”

Soils in the valley run from sandy loam to gravel loam. “A lot of the times some growers have to use air separators on their harvesters that form a vacuum and separate the rocks from the potatoes,” Smartt said.

The rocks either end up back in the soil or are windrowed, where they are “harvested” after the potato harvest.

When it comes to planting seed potatoes, “Our thinking has changed,” Smartt said. “We used to plant the longer-season varieties, like the Russet Nugget that’s real tolerant of frost, first. We’ve had some insect pressures the last few so years we’re putting the shorter-season, more insect (and thus disease) susceptible varieties in early so we can kill and harvest earlier.”

Harvest in the valley starts in early September and needs to be concluded by the second week of October, before potatoes freeze in the ground. The fresh market crop is stored through June and occasionally as long as August. Seed potatoes are all shipped by May.

As for the future, “That’s a good one,” Smartt said. “I wish I could foresee the future.”

Hopefully, his stepson Dwight Barlow, who began working full-time on the farm recently, will be able to continue farming. “It’s a little hard to envision the way things are today how that’s going to work out,” Smartt said.

Smartt’s wife Nina is certainly no stranger to the operation. “She helps with the operation. She helps with the books and she runs trucks for us during harvest and is part of the decision making process.”

Smartt has no complaints when it comes to finding qualified workers. “We have good help. I’m very appreciative of my fine crew’s hard work and dependability.”

Smartt also gives a lot of credit for his success to ag consultants and CSU extension and research programs.

Raised on a cattle and alfalfa ranch in southeast Colorado and an animal science graduate of CSU, Smartt said he wants to get more involved with improving soil health on his farm.

“I think agriculture has taken for granted fertility and chemicals as a necessary apart of things. It is a very important part but I think we need to get back to more sustainable agricultural practices.”

In 2004 Smartt used a GPS tractor guidance system for the first time to plant and cultivate his potatoes. “We haven’t done variable rate applications yet. Our soils are fairly even. Although it’s been proven that variable rate could work here.”

Originally posted Saturday, Apr. 7, 2007

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