April 20, 2018
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Snowe, Collins seek help to aid County potato growers with damage caused by storms

By Jen Lynds, BDN Staff

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — When three tornadoes whipped through Aroostook County on June 8 and 9, the rain they brought with them did not just wash out roads and ATV trails. It also did significant damage to the Aroostook County potato crop.

U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe are appealing to federal officials for financial support to aid affected farmers.

The senators sent a letter this week to Bruce Nelson, acting administrator of the Farm Services Agency at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, urging him to grant northern Maine farmers their requested emergency funding to repair devastating crop damage caused by the storms.

The U.S.D.A. Farm Services Agency officials in Maine have requested $500,000 through the Emergency Conservation Program to help an estimated 50 farmers who were affected.

Tim Hobbs, director of development and grower relations for the Maine Potato Board, said Friday that heavy rains were to blame for much of the damage.

The rain destroyed crops in some fields and washed away the topsoil in many. Once the topsoil is gone, the productive yield of acreage is dramatically reduced and the value of the land can plummet. Subsequent erosion created deep gullies in a number of fields, and the rain and resulting damage also suffocated seeds.

In one instance, a potato field on the Woodland Center Road in Caribou became so flooded that the runoff spilled over onto the roadway.

Donovan Todd, state executive director for the Maine State Farm Service Agency, said Friday that officials may need to request more federal money, depending on how many growers request aid.

“Currently, funding is limited,” he said. “But we wanted to get on record to let them know that we did have damage here.”

He said that growers in the Caribou and the Fort Fairfield area were most heavily affected.

The first tornado struck on June 8 about a mile east-southeast of Little Madawaska Lake and bounced along the ground a total of about 10 miles before ending about four miles northwest of the former Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, according to the National Weather Service office in Caribou.

Another tornado touched down later that day about seven miles northeast of Ashland. Its path was about 50 yards wide and a quarter-mile long with damage limited to trees.

The tornado that touched down June 9 struck two miles northeast of Fort Fairfield. It reportedly featured winds between 65 and 85 mph and also gouged a path about 50 yards wide over a quarter mile.

In their letter to Nelson, the senators stressed the importance of potatoes in Maine’s economy.

“The potato industry is the backbone of the northern Maine economy supporting hundreds of jobs and many more during the harvest season,” they wrote.  “By providing [Emergency Conservation Program] money to help farmers repair the damage to their fields, the funding could stimulate the economy as farmers hire workers to operate equipment and purchase fuel through local distributors. Given the effects of the recent rain, the damage caused, and the importance of this industry to the local economy, we ask that you give an expedited review to the request for ECP funding for these farmers.”

Maine potato farmers planted nearly 55,000 acres in 2010, with a yield of 29,000 pounds per acre, for a harvest of 1.6 billion pounds with a value of $159.2 million.

Todd said he expects his agency will hear “fairly shortly” if the state is eligible for funding.

Damage from the three tornadoes has caused approximately $1.2 million in damage in Aroostook County so far, according to the Aroostook County Emergency Management Agency.

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