FORT KENT, Maine — After last year’s soggy summer, Mainers around the state this year have enjoyed seemingly endless sun and high temperatures perfect for lakeside vacations and outdoor recreation.
But fun and games aside, all that sun could be having a detrimental effect on northern Maine’s 2010 potato crop.
“Rain has been spotty around the county and around the state this year,” said Don Flannery, director of the Maine Potato Board. “We got less rain in August when the potatoes are bulking up, and that will affect size and yield.”
Quality is not an issue, Flannery said.
“The quality of the crop is very good,” he said. “In fact, some of the old guys say you get better quality potatoes in dry conditions rather than wet.”
Flannery noted it has been about five weeks since Aroostook County received enough rain to affect the crops.
“I think those people who can irrigate will not see the same size effects as those who remained dryer,” Flannery said.
As far as the rest of the summer, there is little to no rain in the long-range weather forecasts.
“For this part of the state, it’s just short of a disaster,” said Gilman Caron, a Fort Kent potato farmer. “We estimate the crop is cut by 40 percent; it’s not sizing up.”
Caron said his family farm plants about 400 acres of potatoes, and this year they are actively irrigating 100 of those acres.
“Where we can irrigate it, the crop will be good,” he said.
“This is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” Cindy Roy of Fort Kent said. She and her husband, John Roy, and their children raise potatoes and oats and have spent the past several weeks watching and waiting for rain.
“Last year we had plenty of rain, and this year we had almost none,” Roy said. “I think the potatoes are in sorry shape.”
While the Roys do not irrigate their potato crop, they do supply water and equipment for a 1-acre vegetable garden on their property planted and maintained as a fundraiser by Fort Kent Boy Scouts.
It takes Dustin Roy and his sister Morgan several hours using a garden hose hooked to a 1,500-gallon water tank to thoroughly douse the garden.
“It took a good hour and a half just to do the cukes last night,” Cindy Roy said. “And it is really dusty out there.”
According to the National Integrated Drought Information System, most of Maine is experiencing “abnormally dry” conditions with a pocket over central Maine under “moderate drought” conditions.
“We’ve definitely had periods here without a lot of rain,” said Todd Lericos, a meteorologist at the Caribou National Weather Service office. “But interestingly, the water records for both Bangor and Caribou indicated levels are near or at normal.”
Water levels in Maine are measured by the weather service according to what they tag the “water year,” which runs June 1 to June 1, and on the traditional calendar year.
In Caribou, Lericos said, the water level is 2.53 inches above normal for the water year and 0.16 inches above normal for the calendar year.
In Bangor, those numbers reflect a dryer summer with levels 0.7 inches below for the water year and 2.34 inches below for the calendar year.
“If you look at the water level map, you can tell it’s primarily the central part of Maine into Down East in the below-normal water level phase, whereas the crown of Maine has had a bit more rain with respect to the water year,” Lericos said. “But there is no question we are going through a dry spell, as most of the farmers will tell you.”
The dry weather does not affect just the size of the potatoes.
“Without rain, it’s impossible to dig the potatoes,” Caron said. “Taking them out of that dry ground is like rubbing them on sand paper.”
Most of the St. John Valley farms will start harvest operations around the third week of September. Caron remains optimistic.
“I’d be surprised if we don’t get some rain between now and then,” he said.
Looking ahead, Lericos said much of Maine is heading into a pattern influenced by a warm, high-pressure ridge causing temperatures statewide to climb into the 80s.
“Sometimes under conditions like this you can get storms that roll in from the southwest that produce rain,” Lericos said. “But nothing appears on the horizon, and it looks to be high and dry for the future.”
That’s not the news northern Maine farmers want to hear.
“This is my 42nd crop, and I’ve never seen it this dry this long,” Caron said.