Southern Colorado crops fuel the region and the state
Annually they descend upon Colorado’s San Luis Valley to don their wares. Chapman Park is no ordinary park in September, it turns into a potato grower and consumer’s dream come true. For two days, the best that Colorado’s potato farmers have to offer head to Monte Vista to put on display one of Southern Colorado’s staple crops and the area’s biggest cash crop: the potato.
No spud duds
The first potatoes were grown in the Valley in 1882 and 90 percent of Colorado’s potatoes still come from the San Luis Valley. Fifty thousand acres worth of potatoes continue to thrive in the area and approximately 70 different varieties make their way to the annual San Luis Valley Potato Festival.
According to the Southern Colorado Farming Guide, “the summer temperatures in the San Luis Valley are ideal for growing potatoes. The potatoes are unique in flavor and texture, which can be attributed to the cool nights and warm days.”
Among the principal farmers in potatoes are Peterson Farms, LLC. Owned and operated by Mark Peterson and his brother Greg, the Petersons have been in the potato business for three generations, when Mark’s grandfather, Melvin, moved to the Valley in the 1930s and began his farm with 160 acres. The farm now encompasses 1,120 acres and is also the growing site for Coors barley and green manure, a crop rotation process that feeds the soil and more fertile for potatoes to grow.
As Peterson Farms will attest, where there are potatoes, there is likely barley – another essential crop for farmers in Southern Colorado. The reason for that, according to the Southern Colorado Farming Guide, is “to help put nutrients back into the soil and reduce weed growth.”
The San Luis Valley specifically grows malt barley for Coors Brewing Company, making a combination of Colorado’s mountain water and its southern barley. Of course not all barley is created equal, meaning that farmers supplying barley to Coors have to meet regulations in conjunction with proper moisture content, protein, damaged and broken kernels, or mold.
Another Coors barley contributor is Mix Farms, which has been in the Mix family for three generations. The operation started with 120 acres, 60 for barley and 60 for potatoes, but has since grown to encompass 800 acres and continues to serve as a supplier of malt barley to Coors Brewing.
Life with alfalfa
Though barley for one of the nation’s most known beers and 70 varieties of potatoes are the more intriguing crops, Alfalfa is the valley’s second-most valuable crop in terms of economic impact. The San Luis Valley is a major hay-producing region and the crop’s long gestation period – once planted alfalfa usually stays in the ground for five to seven years – also makes it a prime catalyst for the green manure process. Alfalfa leaves many valuable nutrients behind in the soil, which creates fertile ground for potatoes and other crops.
Rocky Ford’s melons
Lying just about an hour’s drive east of Pueblo in Otero County is the town known for its melons. For decades Rocky Ford’s crop of honeydew, cantaloupe and watermelon have made the town of roughly 4,000 residents a destination for what many call the best melons in the nation. And the principle grower of those melons is Hirakata Farms.
Hirakata got their start, like many farmers in Southern Colorado, in the early 1900s when Tatsunosuke Hirakata settled in Rocky Ford and began farming with his son Keiji. An immigrant from Japan who came to work for the railroad, Tatsunosuke Hirakata was able to keep the farm in the family and, 98 years later, has a trademarked market of Rocky Ford Cantaloupe, Honeydew and Watermelon.
The Hirakata’s still run the now 900-acre farm and distribute their melons throughout the state and surrounding regions.