BLAINE, Maine — Gregg Garrison can close his eyes and remember a time when he was 8 years old, sitting behind the wheel of a tractor tilling the soil in the potato fields on the family farm. Pickers worked around him and roadside potato stands dotted the landscape.
Though times have changed, there has been one constant: Gregg Garrison.
That perseverance, skill and dedication to the craft of potato growing have earned the Blaine resident accolades as the Maine Potato Board’s 2009 Young Farmer of the Year.
The Maine Potato Board named Garrison Young Farmer of the Year based on a nomination process focused on his leadership potential, as well as his success in and positive impact on the community.
“Gregg has already contributed in a big way to our state’s potato industry,” said Tim Hobbs, director of development and grower relations for the Maine Potato Board. “We look forward to getting him more involved at both the local and national level.”
Garrison began farming as an 8-year-old, working alongside his parents, Wayne and Jacqueline Garrison, and his two sisters, Andrea and Tracey. Garrison and his father own and operate Double G Farms, where they grow 600 acres of processing potatoes and 600 acres of rotational crops in fields scattered from Bridgewater to Fort Fairfield.
“I’ve known that I wanted to be a farmer ever since I was a little kid,” he said Friday. “It is a tough job at times, but I enjoy it.”
Garrison said the bulk of his potatoes are sold locally, and most of those to McCain Foods during the summer. He stores 70 percent of his crop from harvest until the next summer.
“We have refrigerated storage, so we get them out of the ground and hold them until we deliver them,” he said. “We also pick some ourselves and sell them at a stand that we have.”
Garrison said he learned the bulk of what he knows about farming from his father. His father taught him what he considers his most valuable lessons when it comes to success in agriculture: Take care of the land, be open to change, embrace innovation, and say yes to opportunities that present themselves.
“We still farm together, and he always has told me not to be afraid to try new things and get different ideas,” Garrison said. “You might get a better yield that way. You take chances and it doesn’t always work out, but you’ve tried and you’ve learned from it.”
Garrison has taken to heart his father’s advice about embracing innovation. Along with using a four-row planter instead of a six-row planter, in 1999 he was among the first Maine growers to build potato storage with a ventilated system using a humicell that automatically regulates humidity levels.
“Today, I monitor our storages right from my office. I don’t even need to step outside,” said Garrison. “Everything is computerized.”
Technology at the farm is so advanced that machinery pretty much runs the whole farm. Garrison doesn’t hire any pickers during the harvest season, not even to run his harvester. There is no need.
Garrison backs up his longtime farming experience with a bachelor’s degree in business management from the University of Maine at Presque Isle. He’s happy with his decision to go to college.
“There’s so much riding on every decision,” said Garrison. “The more knowledge, resources, tools, and people we have to help make decisions, the more likely we are to do things right.”
He also takes pride in being a good steward of the land. Garrison learned decades ago that rotating his crop every year and resting 25 percent of his land for two years leads to a healthier growing environment, higher yields and better quality.
Garrison is undecided about whether farming has grown more complicated over the years.
“A lot has changed,” he acknowledged. “The equipment is bigger, and it costs more so it is difficult to afford. Because of the price of the equipment, fuel, maintenance and other things, you really can’t afford to make a mistake.”
Today, Garrison thinks that competing in the global economy is one of the biggest challenges facing growers in the future.
“As growers in Maine, we are working hard to not overproduce our crop,” he said. “One of the biggest challenges is to keep our acreage in check so that we don’t overproduce and have to sell under cost.”
“In Maine, we do our part,” he stressed. “But getting the entire country to do it is much harder.”
Garrison serves on the Maine Potato Board’s Processing Growers Executive Council and achieved his American Farmer Degree as a member of the National Future Farmers of America. Garrison also has made McCain Foods’ Top 10 Grower List four times in the past decade.
Garrison has a wife, Heidi, and four children, Olivia, Spencer, Chandler and Sydney.
He said he would “love it” if his children decided to pursue a future in agriculture.