Potato growers see ‘pretty good’ year

PHOTO BY JOSEPH CYR/HOULTON PIONEER TIMES

Fall officially started at 11:13 p.m. Wednesday, but the annual fall harvest had already begun for many potato farmers in Aroostook County. This crew, for instance, was hard at work in a field off Route 1 in Littleton on Monday. Students in Houlton area schools are also gearing up for the harvest recess, which runs Sept. 27 through Oct. 1.
PHOTO BY JOSEPH CYR/HOULTON PIONEER TIMES Fall officially started at 11:13 p.m. Wednesday, but the annual fall harvest had already begun for many potato farmers in Aroostook County. This crew, for instance, was hard at work in a field off Route 1 in Littleton on Monday. Students in Houlton area schools are also gearing up for the harvest recess, which runs Sept. 27 through Oct. 1.
Posted Dec. 13, 2010, at 9:28 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:43 a.m.
Farmers across Aroostook County including this one in Fort Kent, are taking full advantage of a stretch of dry weather to get this year's crop in the ground. &quotA majority of the farmers will have 85 percent of their crop in by this weekend," Timothy Hobbs, director of development with the Maine Potato Board said late this week. &quotSo far it's been ideal planting conditions. According to the potato board 55,000 acres of Aroostook County are in production with the majority - about 70 percent - planted with potatoes bound for processing plants. Seed potatoes and table-stock account for the remaining 30 percent. The National Weather Service's long range forecast is calling for sunny days with temperatures in the mid 70s for northern Maine. (NEWS Photos by Julia Bayly)
Farmers across Aroostook County including this one in Fort Kent, are taking full advantage of a stretch of dry weather to get this year's crop in the ground. "A majority of the farmers will have 85 percent of their crop in by this weekend," Timothy Hobbs, director of development with the Maine Potato Board said late this week. "So far it's been ideal planting conditions. According to the potato board 55,000 acres of Aroostook County are in production with the majority - about 70 percent - planted with potatoes bound for processing plants. Seed potatoes and table-stock account for the remaining 30 percent. The National Weather Service's long range forecast is calling for sunny days with temperatures in the mid 70s for northern Maine. (NEWS Photos by Julia Bayly)

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Though potato fields yielded average amounts, the crop quality was better than last year, growers and industry representatives said Monday.

Don Flannery, executive director for the Presque Isle-based Maine Potato Board, said Monday afternoon that 2010 was a “pretty good” year for the industry with about 55,000 acres of spuds planted.

Growers saw significantly less rain in August, which is typically when most of the potato crop bulks up. Rain brought by Hurricane Earl in September watered the potatoes and gave them a boost at a crucial time, according to Flannery. There were no cases of late blight this year, according to industry officials, and pest activity was very low. By mid-October, 80 percent to 85 percent of the Aroostook County crop was out of the ground.

“We saw average yields, and I think it was in large part due to the exceptionally dry August,” Flannery said. “But quality is very important, and everybody seems to be very pleased with how the crop turned out.”

Growers are starting to ship their product right now, according to the executive director. Prices are holding steady and are up over last year in some cases, Flannery said Monday.

There are about 380 potato growers in Maine from Aroostook County to the western mountain region around Bethel and Fryeburg. The total impact of the potato industry on the state’s economy is $540 million in sales, 6,100 jobs, more than $230 million in personal income, and more than $32 million in state and local taxes, according to Flannery.

Dominic Lajoie of Van Buren grows 395 acres of potatoes. He said that he had an “average season” with no late blight or other potato diseases and few problems with pests.

“The yields were good on the early varieties of my crop, and the yields were average on the late varieties,” he said Monday. “The overall quality of the crop is better than last year. In that sense it was a really good season.”

Lajoie planted about the same amount and variety of potatoes as last year. Most of what he grows is under contract, and he said that he is receiving roughly the same price for his product as he did last year.

But Lajoie is concerned that he may have to reduce his acreage next year after hearing rumors that the price of fertilizer may rise significantly.

A new marketing campaign and one grower’s contact with Walt Disney World did help the potato industry this year.

The board’s 2010 marketing campaign kicked off in the spring and the print ads, radio spots and TV ads focused on sustainability. Growers are concentrating heavily on making a profit while also assuring their practices are good for people and the planet in order to preserve the industry for future generations.

At this point, more than 100 growers from across Maine ship more than 100 varieties of state-certified seed potatoes to places across the globe. Earlier this year, Daniel Corey, who owns a 600-acre potato farm in Monticello, sent seed potatoes to Epcot in the Walt Disney World theme park in Florida. Epcot plans to use the potatoes to develop a suitable hydroponic potato-growing method and to select the right varieties so potatoes could potentially be included in The Land pavilion.

The pavilion sits on the west side of “Future World,” one of two themed areas of Epcot. One of the key attractions of The Land, according to Disneydreams.net, is “Living With the Land.” The narrated 14-minute boat journey takes riders through four greenhouses with crops from around the world and an aquaculture facility, the Aquacell. The ride emphasizes sustainable agriculture for millions of guests each year. Major agricultural crops from around the world are showcased in the attraction, including rice, sugar cane, peanuts, cacao and bananas.

One of the growing areas, The Creative House, shows imaginative ways to grow crops: without soil, hanging in the air, even on a space station.

Corey sent Lachipper, Atlantic, Yukon Gold and four other seed potatoes to Epcot. The varieties consist of reds, whites, yellows, purple, potato chip and table varieties.

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