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SAN LUIS VALLEY — Potato plants are busting a few inches out of the dirt at Dave Warsh’s farm in the center of the valley, a flat expanse of tidy green rows in the foreground of the rugged Sangre de Cristos.
Warsh, who discovered the San Luis Valley in south-central Colorado while working on a combine crew after college, can coax about 45,000 pounds of potatoes from every acre. If he were the optimistic type, he could almost double his 1,600-acre farm’s output based on the latest promises from Mexico.
He’s not that guy, though, not after what’s happened in his four-decade career as a potato farmer.
The tuber drama between U.S. and Mexican farmers is decades long. Older than the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994. Older than when Mexican avocados became available in U.S. grocery stores all the way north to Montana and Maine. Longer still than when San Luis Valley farmers illegally accepted a few thousand dollars in cash for potatoes piled on trucks bound for south of the border.
So this May, when the United States finally managed to ship its potatoes into the interior of Mexico based on a ruling by the Mexican Supreme Court that finally cleared the way, Warsh and other San Luis Valley farmers cheered — but cautiously.
The development is a boon for potato growers across the country, but farmers in the Colorado valley of cold nights and abundant sunshine could stand to gain the most. Fuel prices are sky high, and Colorado is much closer to Mexico than potato king Idaho.
Since the early 2000s, save for 11 shipping days in 2014, U.S. farmers have been allowed to sell their potatoes only in the first 26 kilometers south of the border. And in Mexico, potatoes grown in that country aren’t affordable to everyone, which means there’s the potential for a gigantic market expansion — perhaps 70 million new customers — as U.S. potato farmers begin shipping potatoes throughout Mexico at a price lower than Mexican-grown spuds.
The average Mexican eats 30-35 pounds of potatoes per year, while the average U.S. resident consumes about 110 pounds, the potato industry estimates. In this country, potatoes are a staple in most households, at under $3 for a 5-pound bag. But in Mexico, potatoes — hand harvested and almost without blemish — are considered a vegetable for the middle class and higher.
Mexico is the second-largest market for U.S. fresh potato exports, receiving $60 million in shipments last year in the 26-kilometer, or 16-mile, zone. With the opening of the entire country, U.S. potato exports to Mexico could grow to $250 million per year within five years, according to the National Potato Council.
Growers in the San Luis Valley sell nearly 1.5 billion pounds of fresh potatoes annually, harvested from about 50,000 acres, and could double that to help feed Mexico. But only if they think the current rules will stick.
“This will be good for Colorado growers,” said Warsh, after giving The Sun a tour of a section of his potato farm in Center, the actual center of the San Luis Valley. “We’re going to continue to need the political support we’ve had. It stunk every time we turned around. Every roadblock that came up was just artificial and it was just a delay tactic. And they did a great job. They’ve almost delayed for a full 20 years and they got their avocados into all the states.”
Avocados for potatoes
The U.S. The Department of Agriculture wanted a trade of sorts — avocados for potatoes. The United States would allow the sale of Mexican avocados in all the states and Mexico would allow imports of U.S. potatoes.
The United States and Mexico signed an agreement in 2003 that allowed the export of fresh potatoes from all 50 states to Mexico, limiting the first phase of the agreement to 26 kilometers south of the border. The barrier was supposed to be temporary, with expansion to all of Mexico set to happen during the following two years, said Jim Ehrlich, executive director of the Colorado Potato Administrative Committee, formed in 1941 to help San Luis Valley potato growers. Except that’s not what happened.
The 2003 deal happened in parallel with an agreement to let Mexico ship avocados throughout the United States. But the Mexican secretary of agriculture reversed course, approving a regulation that had the effect of barring potato imports from the United States.
The National Potato Council has long argued the restriction violated NAFTA, as well as other trade agreements.
During the next 12 years, avocado exports to the United States rose to more than $1 billion as Mexico was allowed to ship to all 50 states. Twenty years later, the United States imports about $2 billion in Mexican avocados and a whole generation of people who grew up not ever seeing an avocado now buy them for salads, tacos and smoothies.
U.S. potato exports to Mexico, meanwhile, remained stuck at about $35 million in the dozen years that Mexican avocados permeated the market and have grown to about $60 million since then.
In 2010, a panel of U.S. and Mexican agriculture experts determined that U.S. potato exports to Mexico could occur without undue risk of pests or viruses. And in 2014, then-Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto issued a decree for a framework to open to the market for U.S. potatoes. The potato market opened up to the interior of the country, but it didn’t last.
Mexican potato farmers obtained injunctions that prevented the shipping of U.S. potatoes beyond the 26-kilometer barrier after only 11 shipping days. The National Confederation of Potato Producers of the Mexican Republic, called the CONPAPA, argued the Mexican government had no authority to regulate agricultural imports. The potato coalition also argued that U.S. potatoes could bring detrimental viruses and bugs to the market, or allow people to use U.S. potatoes as seeds to grow their own.
Colorado potato farmers are still scarred from that episode.
Some reacted to the good news back then by planting more tubers, only to get stuck with extra potatoes when Mexico’s door closed yet again. The case remained in the court system for nearly the next seven years.
“We’re trying to manage expectations from growers,” Warsh said. “In 2014, they caused a little bit of a problem because growers planted potatoes with the intention of selling to Mexico. Growers are getting a little more hardened now. And there’s not extra acres that were planted for the Mexican market this time.”
The series of legal arguments brought forth by the CONPAPA reached a conclusion in April 2021, when the Mexican Supreme Court decided that the United States could ship potatoes to the interior. U.S. exports, though, are restricted to Mexican cities with a population greater than 100,000.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture didn’t celebrate the decision, however, until it actually got a shipment of potatoes past the barrier.
That happened May 11.
U.S. makes first shipment of fresh potatoes in 25 years to the interior of Mexico
The shipment this spring was heralded by Gov. Jared Polis and Colorado Department of Agriculture Commissioner Kate Greenberg, who traveled to the San Luis Valley in late May to celebrate with local potato growers. The trip came a week after Colorado’s first successful potato shipment beyond the previous 26-kilometer limit, Greenberg said.
Colorado sent 122 million pounds of potatoes to Mexico last year and, with the court ruling, is “strategically positioned to lead the nation in potato exports to Mexico,” the governor said.
But Warsh and many others tending the 100 or so potato farms in the San Luis Valley didn’t immediately double their rows of potato plants in the hopes of selling to Mexico. That’s in part because the first successful shipment to the interior coincided with planting time, which is a few weeks in May. Almost 80% of potatoes were already planted by then.
It’s also that farmers consider the Mexico relationship regarding potatoes as too shaky.
“Oh, hey, we all think it’s tenuous,” Ehrlich said.
“There are a limited number of potato growers in Mexico and they’ve been really effective at controlling the amount of supply. And when you control supply, you control demand and price. These potato growers have an extreme amount of political power in Mexico.”
Still, the Colorado potato committee has ramped up efforts to market its potatoes in Mexico. San Luis Valley representatives have set up booths at trade shows in Mexican cities and reached out to customers in the 26-kilometer zone who have connections to the rest of the nation.
“We have all the infrastructure to grow 100,000 acres of potatoes here in the San Luis Valley,” Warsh said. “We can double if we are shipping to Mexico at a profitable price. And I’m going to say that our profitable price to Mexico will still be cheaper than what they have been paying and it will be a serious benefit to the consumers.”
U.S. potato growers are operating now under two different sets of shipping requirements — one for the 26-kilometer zone and the other for the interior cities with a population of 100,000 or more. Ehrlich suspects that buyers near the border, buoyed by the Supreme Court ruling, have gotten braver about moving potatoes farther south.
Proof has come from photos snapped by Americans visiting Mexican beaches, where discarded bags and boxes contain the names of states where the starchy vegetables were grown. “I’ve had numerous people that have been to Mexico to the beach and have shown me pictures of U.S. potatoes,” Ehrlich said.
Mexico’s testing requirements viewed as more roadblocks
Mexican officials are checking for six types of pests before U.S. potatoes can enter the country. A sample of potatoes is peeled, sliced and put under a microscope. A U.S. inspector checks potatoes in every Colorado warehouse, and they’re checked again by Mexican inspectors.
Mexico is also requiring that potatoes going beyond the border region get treated with an agent that keeps them from sprouting. This is in order to prevent people from using U.S. potatoes to grow their own crops. In the United States, growers are moving away from the anti-sprouting chemical in favor of more natural sprout inhibitors, including clove oil.
“They use the excuse that these potatoes could get planted down there and spread disease,” Ehrlich said. “They’re actually getting some of our very best quality potatoes in order to meet all the requirements.”
San Luis Valley growers don’t really trust any of it. But as sales increase south of the border, they will begin to plant more tubers, Ehrlich predicts.
Former U.S. Rep. John Salazar, who used to farm potatoes in the San Luis Valley, has worked to get Colorado potatoes into Mexico for 30 years. He hosted former Mexico President Felipe Calderón in Washington, D.C., and showed Mexican dignitaries Colorado potatoes when he was the state agriculture commissioner. More than once he thought they had solved the impasse.
Around 2008, he said, Mexico’s doors were open for about a month. They were open less than two weeks in 2014.
“I’m hoping this is permanent,” he said in an interview with The Sun. “Colorado is located strategically in the best place to be when it comes to potato shipments to Mexico.
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“In the San Luis Valley, we do grow the best potatoes in the world,” said Salazar, who sold his potato farm to his brother and now grows hay near Antonito. “It’s called the land of cool sunshine.”
Salazar visited Cozumel a month ago on vacation and his family noticed the lack of potatoes. When they asked for them in a restaurant, a tiny portion came on their plates. “That’s one of the comments that I got from the whole family: ‘Where are the potatoes?’”
There’s a vast, untapped market ready to seize. Mostly, Mexicans have eaten the round, white potatoes, mainly the Russet Burbank. Many people haven’t been exposed to red and yellow potatoes, Ehrlich said.
“We have been trying to expose the retail sector down there to different things so that they know what’s available, so that when this day came, they would have some options,” he said. “So it’s really going to be up to them and how they perceive what they can market.”
Warsh is close to retiring, so he’s not planning any major planting boost based on Mexico. His three grown children have other careers and aren’t planning to return to the valley to farm. He is selling the farm to two other potato growers, who will perhaps reap the benefits of the end of a 25-year political battle with Mexico.
“Just every time you turn around, you can’t imagine what the next thing is,” Warsh said. “Every one smells worse than the last one. But even after we have to go through all this testing and peeling and packaging as they want, we can still deliver potatoes down there cheaper.”