Weld County is still home to potato festivals and dotted with spuds-growing artifacts, but the local tater industry has little to contribute anymore to the area’s vast legacy.
A shell of what it once was, Weld’s potato acreage took another hit this year, as the last large-scale grower of the crop — Strohauer Farms in LaSalle — plans to raise half of its potatoes outside of the state, citing water issues as the reason for doing so.
The Potato Day Festival for about 25 years has been a staple of autumn activities in Greeley — a community where the potato is credited as being the first commercially viable crop locally grown.
But since 1987, Weld County has gone from growing 3,855 acres of potatoes on 66 farms to what’s expected to be about 550 acres this year, grown by just two farmers.
Harry Strohauer — owner of Strohauer Farms, which grows nearly all of the remaining potato acres in Weld County — and others hesitate none in pointing the finger at water issues when explaining why spuds production has decreased so sharply.
Strohauer said he’d rather keep his crops growing near LaSalle — the only place his family has farmed since it came here in the 1940s — than in New Mexico, where he’ll plant 500 of his 1,000 total potato acres this year.
The climate along the Front Range and his soil close to home are ideal for growing the crop, and Weld’s proximity to large markets — the Denver metro area — and the infrastructure — Interstate 25, U.S. 34 and U.S. 85 — add to the local benefits.
“But the truth is, with how we manage things in this state, we just don’t have a reliable source of water anymore,” said Strohauer, who’s an executive committee member for the National Potato Council, and has spearheaded Strohauer Farms since he was 16 years old, following his father’s death.
As the region’s population has grown, so have the overall demands for water.
The tightening of water supplies and the uncertainty of the resource in certain years has become too much for some farmers, including potato growers, who stress that potatoes are an “unforgiving” crop if not fully irrigated — especially if you’re trying to meet the standards of King Soopers, Whole Foods and others.
But making life particularly difficult now, Strohauer says, is the inability to pump groundwater wells.
In the mid 2000s, augmentation requirements were made more stringent in Colorado.
Augmentation water is required to make up for depletions to the aquifer. Over time, pumping water out of the aquifer depletes surface flows in the basin — needed by senior, surface water users.
Prior to the state’s rule changes in the mid 2000s, farmers were only augmenting for about 10 percent for the water they pumped out of the ground, according to some estimations.
During the severe drought of 2002, surface flows were meager and some senior surface water users said well-pumpers were taking too much out of the aquifer and not putting enough back in.
In the end, the state’s augmentation requirements were changed for groundwater wells, and owners of certain wells — wells considered “tributary” to stream flows — now have to augment as much as 100 percent for the water they pump out of the ground.
Strohauer said now — with those changes in place — it would cost tens of millions of dollars to own enough augmentation water and take all other measures needed to get all of his wells pumping again at full capacity.
Like Strohauer, many other area farmers haven’t been able to get their wells fully pumping again, or at all in some cases.
Strohauer says he isn’t exaggerating when he claims it’s easier to haul his farm equipment and fly to and from his new farmground in New Mexico than it is to grow potatoes near his Weld County home and deal with some of the water restrictions in Colorado.
In New Mexico, Strohauer has no augmentation requirements; he can pump as much water out of the ground as needed without having to make up for his depletions.
But he doesn’t at all believe that’s the best way to manage groundwater either, he said.
“I’m not against augmentation, by any means,” stresses Strohauer, who, in addition to his groundwater wells, owns senior surface water rights. In many years, though, that surface water isn’t enough to fully irrigate his potato acres, and the groundwater wells are needed to provide immediate, supplemental relief in dry times. “I agree that we need to be augmenting more than we once were. But I think things have swung way too far the other way.”
Like others in the LaSalle and Gilcrest area, Strohauer has seen his basement flood from high groundwater levels in recent years.
High groundwater has also flooded fields, causing some crops — including some of Strohauer’s potatoes — to rot.
Strohauer and others believe the high groundwater levels have been caused by “overaugmenting” the aquifer since Colorado changed its rules in the mid 2000s.
Complaints of high groundwater levels and the inability to pump wells led to a legislative push last year for a comprehensive study of groundwater activity in the South Platte River basin — a study that’s underway now by the Colorado Water Institute, and is expected to be complete by the end of the year.
“Maybe this study will show us something new,” said John Stulp, Gov. John Hickenlooper’s adviser on water, noting that other efforts — including similar groundwater studies and water-cooperative pilot projects — are underway in Colorado. “There’s no doubt ag across the state faces water challenges. We live in a semi-arid region.
“We need to get to a point where we’re making the most beneficial use of what limited water we have, and we’re going a lot of different routes to get there.”
Until that happens, Strohauer is considering planting more acres elsewhere, he said.
Water issues have affected other farmers in Weld County.
Sakata Farms in Brighton, which has operations across southern Weld County, has decreased its acres from 4,000 to 2,500 during the past four years, and brought commercial broccoli growing to an end in Colorado when it stopped raising that crop last year.
Bob Sakata, owner of the business, has cited water uncertainty as the biggest reason for cutting back.
“You just hate to see this happen, but we have to grow somewhere,” said Strohauer, explaining that it’s taken him years to develop his contracts to sell potatoes to large grocers, and those contracts could come to an end if he falls short on production just one year. “We want to stay to here. I don’t want to see potato acres keep disappearing in Weld County.
“But it’s getting harder to stay here.”