PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Although the season started out wet and dim, the end result for potato harvesters should be bright.
Leaders in the state’s potato industry are projecting a harvest similar in success to last season’s, despite the fact that wet weather initially hamstrung growers and invited late blight to pepper crops in parts of Aroostook County.
“Overall, I think we have had a good growing season,” Tim Hobbs, director of development and grower relations for the Maine Potato Board, said recently. “Despite the initial wet weather, we have had a stretch of dry weather and sun that has really helped us.”
Hobbs said that 56,000 acres of potatoes were planted in the state this year, approximately the same amount as last year.
“The yield is expected to be up over last year,” he said. “We anticipate that harvest will start in earnest in mid-September.”
Once harvested, the $125 million crop will be turned into potato chips, french fries and other processed foods as well as sold for the fresh table market.
The industry has been slightly troubled by late blight this year, but it has not been serious.
Late blight, which is caused by the fungus Phytophthora infestans, infects plants in the nightshade family such as potatoes and tomatoes and is most destructive during cool, moist weather. The plant’s leaves form black lesions, affected potatoes rot in the soil, and tubers appearing hardy enough to harvest usually rot in storage. The disease can destroy an entire crop rapidly because the associated fungus produces numerous spores that can be carried long distances through the air or transported by infected plants. Late blight was the cause of the Irish potato famine in the 1840s.
According to University of Maine Cooperative Extension, late blight was found this summer on potatoes in the Fort Kent area, the Fort Fairfield area and in the Houlton area, as well as in Easton and Hodgdon.
The state took a pre-emptive strike against late blight in July when the Maine Potato Board approved a temporary rule change allowing out-of-state pilots to make aerial applications of fungicide to Maine’s rain-soaked potato fields, which were too wet to support farm equipment. The weather put the crop at risk for blight, but out-of-state aerial sprayers were never brought in.
Fields began to dry out by mid-July and farmers’ usual fungicide applications staved off the disease.
Pest activity also has been light this year.
Cooperative Extension field scouts found trace numbers of potato aphids in fields that were not treated with a systemic material at the time of planting. Potato flea beetles were found in some fields, and European corn borer moths also were documented.
A longtime staple of the harvest season, “The Potato Picker’s Special” on WAGM TV, will begin again on Wednesday, Sept. 16. The show, which started out on radio 50 years ago, provides information and insight for farmers into the potato harvest.
Harvest is expected to last through mid-October.