Potato promoted during Bangor conference

Posted Aug. 10, 2009, at 10:06 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Bangor played host last week to the U.S. Potato Board during the organization’s annual summer meeting. About 100 people attended the gathering from all around the country, according to Tom Qualey, a potato grower in Sherman who chairs the national group this year.

In a telephone interview on Monday, Qualey said the primary goal of the national potato board is to promote the potato as a healthful and low-cost food choice.

“A potato has more potassium than a banana and more Vitamin C than an orange,” he said. “A potato is a very healthy thing by itself, until you load it down with butter and sour cream and bacon.”

In addition to discussing upcoming promotional efforts, Qualey said, the growers’ group engaged in plenty of shoptalk.

“We always talk about who’s going to have the biggest yields and who’s had the worst weather,” he said. Maine is definitely a contender in the latter category, he said.

Thanks to the long, cool rainy spring and early summer, Qualey said, “Maine has had one of the most trying growing seasons in years.”

About 55,000 acres in Maine are planted each year to potatoes. The $125 million crop is sold to make potato chips, french fries and other processed foods as well as for the fresh table market.

In July, the Maine Potato Board approved a temporary rule change allowing out-of-state pilots to make aerial applications of fungicide to Maine’s waterlogged potato fields, which were too wet to support farm equipment. The rainy weather had put the crop at risk of succumbing to a fungal disease known as potato late blight, which was responsible for the massive failure of the potato crop in Ireland in 1845.

Qualey said Monday that out-of-state aerial sprayers were never brought in, because fields in most parts of Maine began to dry out by mid-July and late blight has been contained by farmers’ usual fungicide applications.

The lower Aroostook County region where Qualey farms — he has 325 acres in potatoes and 300 in canola — was among the last areas to recover, he said, but even there the potato crop is looking healthy and tractors and other farm equipment are able to operate in the fields as usual.

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