Senator Mark Udall (left) stands with Aspen Produce co-owner Dwayne Weyers (right) on Thursday morning after receiving an award for his work on the national potato campaign.
Courier staff writer
CENTER — Senator Mark Udall (D) couldn’t have been more pleased with his sack of Valley potatoes on Thursday morning.
The senator, who passed a bill a year ago this month to keep tubers on the menu for millions of schoolchildren across the county, visited Aspen Produce in Center as a part of a tour that included stops in Fort Garland, Alamosa and Saguache. He met with local producers and potato enthusiasts for a facility walk though, which took place after he received a special honor for his fight at the nation’s capital.
“It is about kids,” Udall said upon accepting a framed school lunch tray. “It is about the future.”
Last year, the Obama administration proposed to limit the amount of potatoes and other starchy vegetables schools could serve during lunch to one cup per week and ban them from breakfast service. With the help of Maine Senator Susan Collins (R), Udall was able to persuade the Senate to block the proposal through an amendment to the 2012 Agricultural Department spending bill. The unanimously approved amendment prohibits the department from limiting vegetable servings in a school meal program and is based on findings showing the proposal had no basis in nutritional value.
“If you eat, you are involved with agriculture,” Udall said, crediting former state senator Lewis Entz for such wisdom. “I keep this on my shoulders. It has been a labor of love to stand with you all and do the right thing.”
In addition to the award presentation, Udall spoke with producers about the potato market and the future of the Valley’s industry.
Aspen Produce co-owner Rick Ellithorpe told the senator the facility is one of two independent sheds in the area.
“We chose that direction,” Ellithorpe said. “We are trying to hang on. There are struggles with regulations, but I think we are getting the job done.”
Aspen Produce, he said, employs upward of 35 people, has a $1 million payroll and has been a part of the community since 1971 when he and his father, Bill Ellithorpe, opened the facility’s doors. He added on behalf of all producers that between 150 and 220 semis haul potatoes out of the Valley for nine months of the year, and that tort reforms and the ongoing drought are problematic.
“Those are things that are crucial to our survival,” Ellithorpe said.
He also referenced the declining fresh potato market, which is affecting the Valley since 97 percent of its production is not for processing.
“We don’t have that option,” Ellithorpe said. “A new entity would help.”
Ellithorpe’s son, Jed, who is also an Aspen Produce co-owner, added that it would be a huge opportunity for Colorado to look at processing operations.
“We really care about our potato industry,” Jed said. “Rather than scrape around with the competition for our slice, in Colorado, we probably need to shift our paradigm where we are making our own pie.”
One processing path the Valley producers could consider is entering the ingredient business, Jed said. An example of using potatoes as an ingredient is in dog food.
“It is totally away from human consumption, but the growth is substantial,” Jed said. “The Colorado potato industry needs to look at these things and invest into something that works for the Valley.”
One thing that might work for the Valley’s fresh potato market is shipping the crop across the border, which has been an ongoing effort to make a reality.
“We have to stay on this Mexico opportunity,” Udall said. “We have to find leverage.”