I had an opportunity and I took it,” Kurt Holland said about his decision to join a new generation of potato growers and shippers in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. Selling Motorola radios, then truck brokering, brought Holland’s career path to Mountain Valley Produce, where he works as a sales manager.
“I’ve been here since 2005 and company manager Ernie Myers has been here since 1998,” Holland said. “I’m originally from Oregon but I’ve lived in the San Luis Valley for 39 years.”
Potatoes have been a staple crop in the San Luis Valley and the industry continues to develop a robust ability to market table-stock varieties all over the United States and into Mexico.
Mountain Valley Produce has been family-owned and operated since 1997. The company farms and markets a variety of fresh-market potatoes from Canela Russets to yellow-flesh varieties Natascha, Toscana, Keuka Gold and Satina. Several fingerling varieties are also produced —Austrian Crescent, Banana, French Fingerling, LaRatte, Purple Peruvian and Rose Finn Apple.
“Our marketing niche is fingerling and creamer sized potatoes — our specialty side,” Holland said. “We still grow yellows, whites and russet varieties, all for the fresh market. Fighting price is a constant battle on the russet side of our business. As for our specialty side, we are solid. We’ve had the same good customers for many years, and we’ve learned how to treat them right so they will always come back for more.
“From planting to harvest, all of our equipment is very specialized for our fingerlings and creamers,” he said. “I don’t know if there are studies that have been completed thoroughly enough to show it, but I believe these specialty varieties offer advantages with convenience. These smaller potatoes cook quick and easy, and our consumers appreciate buying smaller potatoes that don’t go to waste.”
Mountain Valley Produce also produces all of its own grower-entry seed. Ernie Myers oversees the seed and overall production and Holland manages all of the national sales, including markets in Canada.
Mountain Valley also rotates green manure crops and grows wheat and alfalfa when the San Luis Valley has adequate water supplies to support these crops.
There are clear advantages to growing potatoes in this high mountain valley. With an altitude of 7,600 feet above sea level, the San Luis Valley has been referred to as the highest and largest valley in North America. The winters here can be very cold, dropping as low as minus 50° F. While the cold winter weather presents its own frozen challenges, a positive result from the frigid conditions for potato production is natural control of diseases and pests, thereby reducing the need for fumigants and other pesticides.
In 2007, Holland attended the Potato Industry Leadership Institute, providing him with his first opportunity to become involved with the industry at the national level.
In 2010 an opportunity to represent Colorado on the USPB became available and he accepted this second opportunity to become involved with the national industry again.
“I have thoroughly enjoyed this chance to be on the USPB,” he said. “This has been a great opportunity to network with other board members from all across the country, and make great and lasting friendships. It has been awesome.”
As an administrative committee member on the USPB’s International Committee, Holland has traveled on trade missions to Singapore and Mazatlán, Mexico. In Singapore, Holland attended a chef seminar that showcased U.S. potatoes, specifically dehydrated potato products.
He provided the chef attendees with insights and perspective regarding potato production and worked with them as they explored new ways to introduce menu items featuring U.S. dehy potatoes.
“When I served on international, I received a huge eye-opener about all that really goes on behind the scenes at the USPB,” Holland said. “I had no idea about all the work the USPB staff accomplishes and this completely amazed me. As I was involved with these two trade missions, I will just say there wasn’t anything relaxing about them. The USPB really worked me. It was not a free ride at all.”
Holland appreciates the research and resources available through the USPB. During the 2014 USPB annual meeting, board members learned firsthand about the millennial demographic, how they perceive potatoes and what’s trending with this up-and-coming market segment.
“The millennial marketing dynamics are really standing out in my mind these days,” he said. “Now that I’ve heard and learned about it from the USPB research, I’m hearing about this group all of the time. I think it’s an opportunity. As an industry, we need to figure this group out, and market our products to their needs.”
He challenges his fellow growers to get involved in the USPB’s long-range plan (LRP) development process. “Each month I have the chance to give a report to the Colorado Potato Administrative Committee and I always tell them how hard these people (the USPB staff) are working,” he said. “I tell them how we are inviting all growers to get involved in the LRP development process, and I give examples of how we are going in the right direction.”