Climate change impacts in the potato industry in the San Luis Valley could reach as far as Guatemala

Farmers in the San Luis Valley are working alongside researchers and government officials to maximize their yields of potatoes in a valley that may be undergoing aridification due to Climate Change. The depletion of water in the valley’s complicated aquifer system due to slow downward trends in snowfall could be disastrous for agriculture. Governmental programs and modernized farming practices are giving potato farmers confidence in the future.

The stakes are high for families from Colorado to central America.

“I’m a veggie guy,” said Francisco Sebastian, foreman of the White Rock Specialties potato packing plant.

He has been in the valley for 22 years, hailing from Guatemala, and when he isn’t supervising the plant, he is selling vegetables at local farmers’ markets. The health of the valley is his liveliness.

Rio Grande River headwaters measured at Del Norte have decreased significantly in the last few decades. In the last two decades, the annual water level failed to reach 800,000 acre-feet, until this year.

Cleave Simpson, general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, explained the trends of water in the valley. To some degree, the surface water and the aquifer systems are connected, he said, which means that a decrease in snowfall will deplete the aquifers if they are over-pumped.

“This basin is highly over appropriated,” said Simpson. Every year, the board must come up with a plan for how to allocate water, to be approved by the state engineer. Currently, the valley is self-dividing into subdivisions with their own water rates.

“there’s a renewed sense of urgency of how this community comes together,” said Simpson. “If we don’t solve this in the next four to five years the state engineer will have the unenviable task of not accepting our plan.”

If the plan is denied, water rights will inevitably be curtailed -perhaps randomly- and farmers will lose the ability to grow crops.

Alarm in the community is mixed with skepticism. A fair number of farmers in the valley are not directly affected by the aquifer problem and are not actively changing their water usage or variety of crops, said Simpson. The other percentage of farmers are aware of the situation at hand and willing to stray from tradition.

Sheldon Rockey and his brother Brendon operate one of the many farms that have adapted to the aquifer system in the valley by using progressive methods of sustainable farming.

Sheldon gave a tour of his farm, proudly showing their greenhouse and storage building. It was dark and cold where the potatoes are stored, but there are fingerlings stacked to the top of the high ceilings.

Rockey Farms grows potato seeds to sell to other farms and specific varieties of potatoes to sell for consumption. The climate in the valley during the growing season ranges from 90s during the day to 50s at night, which is the ideal temperature for growing potatoes. Rockey farms utilizes crop rotation and green manure to ensure maximum efficiency and minimal water usage. Rockey believes he can feed the entire valley with just 55-65 acres of his 500-acre property.

He does understand the seriousness of the aridification trends. “We’ve got to have snow and water running down the river,” he said.

If there were consecutive years of drought as bad as 2002 for more than 5 years, Rockey believes that farms in the San Luis Valley would not survive.

Sheldon and Brendon reach out and educate other farmers in the valley on reducing water usage and increasing yields. He approximates that half of the farmers in the valley are adapting to more sustainable farming methods such as crop rotation and governmentally subsidized farrowing of land.

Researchers in the valley are also reaching out to farmers to help minimize water use.

Samuel Essah, the leader of potato research at Colorado State University, is currently addressing the aridification by discovering the most effective variety of potato for farmers to grow. There is an approximate 60% adoption rate of his research in the community, he estimated.

Farmers and researchers say they feel good about the current state of the Valley, but if climate change did cause aridification and years of drought, there could be serious consequences.

“Water getting screwed up in this valley would reverberate through the entire country,” said Stephanie Chandler, head of the White Rock Specialties packing plant that sorts and ships potatoes for a handful of local farmers.

The San Luis Valley is the fourth-largest producer of potatoes in the country, shipping out 120 loaded semi-trucks filled with potatoes every day. Potatoes from small organic growers like Rockey Farms are put in the bags branded by huge sellers like Kroger and shipped nationwide.

White Rock Specialties is abuzz with activity. Potatoes fly through State-of-the-art machines that sort them by size and then distribute them into bags. It’s methodical, but at the ends of every machine stands a living person making sure the potatoes are ready to leave the plant. Chandler employs around 30 migrant workers from Central America, mainly Guatemala and Mexico.

The same workers come back for jobs every packing season because they enjoy working at the plant and have acquired the necessary skills over the years, said Chandler.

Workers in the plant rely on the business of the San Luis potato industry. In the 2002 drought, they kept their jobs but there was no overtime to occupy the evenings, said Sebastian.

In busy years, many migrant workers send extra money home to their families. Extra money to sed home usually comes from the overtime hours that

These workers rely on the farming industry in the San Luis Valley for money and liveliness, said Chandler. Years of drought would be disastrous for them and their families.



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