In Colorado, the potato industry is not small potatoes. In fact, Colorado is right behind Idaho as one of the top potato-producing states in the nation. That's due, in part, to the work of the Colorado State University Agricultural Experiment Station in the San Luis Valley, an area known for its pristine conditions for growing high-quality crops, among them potatoes. Because of these near-perfect conditions for growing potatoes, the San Luis Valley also has become a top production area for quality seed potatoes used by farmers in many other states such as California and Texas.
David Holm, professor of horticulture and landscape architecture, came to the San Luis Valley Research Center (SLVRC) in 1978. He grew up on a potato farm in Idaho, and when he first visited the San Luis Valley, he knew that it was a pace-setting place for the potato industry in the United States.
"I knew that the San Luis Valley could out-produce other areas with higher-quality potatoes," says Holm. "The area is at the right altitude with high light intensities, which translates into moderately warm days and cool nights, which is perfect for potatoes. The area has low disease rates and no Colorado potato beetles. It costs less to produce a better crop here."
Since 1978, potato production in the valley has doubled. The area continuously produces top-quality potatoes. Quality is based on external appearance of the potato (freedom from cracks, nobs, or off-shapes) and freedom from internal problems such as hollow areas and discolored or brown areas. The appearance and internal quality of a potato are large factors in the consumer market and depend primarily on the variety of the potato. A variety without defects means that it will be more acceptable to consumers.
Finding and developing new varieties has been the foundation of Holm's success. His research centers on developing new potato varieties with increased yield, improved quality, resistance to diseases and pests, and tolerance to environmental stresses. A primary emphasis also is placed on developing potatoes that are more inexpensive to grow because they require less fertilizer, pesticides, and other production inputs.
Through the years, Holm has developed many varieties, some of which are staples of the industry today. Chances are, for example, if you bite into a Frito Lay potato chip, you're eating a Chipeta potato, a variety developed in the San Luis Valley for the potato chip industry. And, yes, there is a difference between a potato-chip potato and a baking potato and a french-fry potato. Chipetas are the right density for a potato chip, and they have lower sugar levels so they don't turn too brown when they are made into chips.
Russet Nugget potatoes, on the other hand, make perfect french fries. They, too, have lower sugar levels. They're also high in specific gravity, or dense, which makes for a better quality french fry. This San Luis Valley variety has been sliced and fried by fast-food chains since 1988.
Then there's Ute Russet. Holm said that although this variety didn't catch on in large markets, the fact that growing it requires little fertilizer and that it is more tolerant of potato diseases makes it popular with organic potato growers.
The Sangre, a red potato, was developed to be more attractive and to hold its red color longer during storage, making it more attractive to buyers in the grocery store.
What does the future hold? The challenges are never-ending. The introduction of the potato late blight and other diseases into the San Luis Valley in recent years will be the next challenge Holm tries to tackle. Finding a variety that is resistant to these diseases or even better, immune would help assure that the potato industry in Colorado will remain productive and in a competitive position.
He'll also look at specialty varieties such as potatoes with yellow, red, dark purple, or some other color hiding underneath their skin. Imagine the fun a bag of Frito Lay chips would hold for a consumer then.
"We just try to help the grower by making them more productive and profitable, and we involve the growers as much as possible," said Holm. "I've seen varieties come and go. Time will tell which ones are successful. We just try to develop the super spud."