High-security Aroostook farm advances tater technology

Joan Whipple (from left), Gloria Russell and Jerica Fox harvest mini-tubers from the new hydroponic system in one of the Porter Seed Farm's greenhouses in Masardis.
Joan Whipple (from left), Gloria Russell and Jerica Fox harvest mini-tubers from the new hydroponic system in one of the Porter Seed Farm's greenhouses in Masardis.
Posted June 10, 2011, at 1:59 p.m.
Last modified June 10, 2011, at 5:13 p.m.
Joan Whipple, Gloria Russell and Jerica Fox work in one of the Porter Seed Farm's greenhouses in Masardis, harvesting some of the mini-tubers grown there to be used to grow seed potatoes.
Joan Whipple, Gloria Russell and Jerica Fox work in one of the Porter Seed Farm's greenhouses in Masardis, harvesting some of the mini-tubers grown there to be used to grow seed potatoes.

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MASARDIS, Maine — There’s not a lot along this stretch of Route 11 but logging operations, the occasional moose, some sporting camps and one or two tiny towns.

Masardis itself is well out of the way, and on its own outskirts is an oddity of sorts — a potato farm. And while potato farms aren’t exactly rare in Aroostook County, this one is set apart from others by barbed-wire-topped chain-link fences and surveillance cameras that secure access to the fields. Inside the buildings are high-tech laboratories and one of only a few hydroponic systems used to grow seed potatoes in North America.

The 900-acre Porter Seed Farm has been tucked away in this corner of Maine for 65 years, and more than 85 percent of potatoes grown in the state start here. The farm grows roughly 80 varieties of potato for Maine’s largest agriculture sector, providing seed that has been raised in an environment to minimize any chance of pest or disease.

“It’s an integral part of the infrastructure that makes the industry stable,” said Don Flannery, executive director of the Maine Potato Board, an industry-led board created by the Legislature in 1986.

The farm provides seed potatoes to other seed growers in Maine and, increasingly, in other states. Having an in-state source reduces transportation and other costs to growers and also reduces the risk of introducing a pest or disease carried in on seed potatoes from another state.

The potato industry remains an integral part of the Maine economy. With 55,200 acres in production, Maine is the sixth-largest grower of potatoes in the United States. It includes more than 500 businesses, generating nearly $300 million in annual sales, employing over 2,600 people and providing over $112 million in income to Maine residents, according to a 2003 study commissioned by the MPB.

The Porter Seed Farm was run directly by the Maine Department of Agriculture until Jan. 1, 2010, when the state turned management over to the Maine Potato Board.

The move was made to improve management of the farm and to move toward operating it as a sustainable business without funding from the general fund. Flannery said the farm has an operating budget of $500,000 a year. Most of that is covered by the seed it sells to other seed growers — and 20 percent of the potatoes produced in Maine are for seed.

But the farm needs $160,000 from the state to cover operations. That’s down by about $100,000 from when it was run by the Department of Agriculture, said Flannery.

“It’s being run out of Presque Isle not Augusta,” Flannery said.

Added Timothy Hobbins, director of development and grower relations at MPB, “And the owner’s in the store.”

The move allows the farm to move more quickly when it needs new equipment or supplies, freeing it from having to work through state bureaucracy. The board let go of two employees when it took over the farm; Flannery and Hobbins oversee the farm, and MPB staff support its operations, as well. Both men are also experienced farmers, so when extra help is needed driving a tractor or roguing a field (checking for diseased plants), they pitch in. The farm employs five people full-time and one part-timer.

“There’s an attitude now among the seed growers and the potato board that you have more control over your own destiny — that’s the way it should be for all of us,” said Sen. Roger Sherman, R-Houlton, chair of the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation & Forestry Committee.

Rep. Dean Cray, R-Palmyra, was another big proponent of the shift in management.

“I don’t think we had the proper funding within the resources of the state to do what needed to be done,” he said. “So far, it’s worked out well.”

To fully cover operating expenses, the farm needs to increase its sales. It currently sells roughly 12,000 hundredweight of seed potatoes a year, with about 65 acres in production. Flannery said Porter Seed Farm needs to be harvesting between 70 and 80 acres annually. Production this year will already be up about 12 percent over last year, he estimated.

In the past, when Maine customers didn’t get exactly what they were looking for from the farm, they started going elsewhere. Now that industry has essentially taken over management of the farm, some of those farmers have come back. In the last year, a half-dozen farmers returned to buying seed from the Masardis farm.

And part of that increase in production comes from a recent sizable technology investment made by the state and industry.

In fall of 2008 the farm added a new advanced greenhouse and switched from the traditional way of raising potatoes to a hydroponic system. The first crop in the new system grew in 2009.

The overall investment was $600,000. It included a $300,000 development grant from the Maine Technology Institute, $200,000 from the state and $100,000 from industry.

The new equipment helped evolve a process that was already highly advanced.

The farm keeps tissue samples from 80 varieties of potatoes, explained laboratory greenhouse manager Kim Flewelling. The process starts in November, when the farm estimates how many actual seed potatoes it will need for customers.

Entering a highly sterile environment, Flewelling will take the tiny plants — tissue cultures that are about 4 inches long, as thin as an ivy tendril — and cut them several times, each section containing a leaf. Each of those sections will be allowed to grow, and then they will be cut again, as needed, to get the numbers of plants up. Remember, you can’t plant potato seeds — you have to actually plant tubers, or plant cuttings.

Each of those cuttings are grown to about four inches and then planted individually by hand. That’s about 60,000 a year. But thanks to the new technology in place, that’s down from about 230,000 cuttings planted by hand annually.

In the past, the cuttings were planted in a traditional soil medium in the greenhouses. The plants would grow to a certain size and would be harvested, each yielding two or three mini-tubers, each about the size of a cherry tomato.

But part of the tech upgrade was a new hydroponic system. Instead of planting the cuttings in soil, they are grown in trays that are constantly circulating a liquid mixture of water and nutrients. Workers lift a fabric covering to reveal the root system in the trays, and pick the tubers when they’re the right size. The other, smaller tubers are allowed to grow longer. The system has allowed the farm to extend the growing season of the mini-tubers, with multiple harvests spread out over the weeks. On average, they now get eight mini-tubers per plant; some varieties only produce four, others are as high as 14.

The tubers are planted in the Porter Farm’s fields, harvested and replanted. That second-year harvest is what’s sold, and MPB is working now to grow a third-year harvest to sell, as well.

The hydroponic system is an advance but not without its risks. If a pump goes down or if a tube becomes unattached, a whole crop can be shot and quickly.

“It’s not for the weak of heart,” said Flannery.

But the system is closely monitored by computers, which also maintain the temperature, humidity and other environmental conditions.

There’s only two other such systems in North America and only a handful worldwide, according to Flannery.

Andrew McKay and Duncan McLeod of New Zealand were visiting the farm Tuesday, the last leg of a trip that had brought them across the country, with stops at major seed potato-growing operations. McKay is a seed potato farmer, and McLeod is an agronomist working with him.

McKay said he’s interested in setting up a hydroponic operation, and the one in Masardis was the only one he’d seen on his two-week tour through the states.

“It’s impressive,” he said.

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