Potato growers who suffered crop losses get federal assistance

Posted July 02, 2011, at 5:55 p.m.
Last modified July 03, 2011, at 7:16 p.m.

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Potato growers who saw their crops damaged or destroyed when three tornadoes whipped through Aroostook County early last month will receive support from the federal government.

U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe announced on Friday that the Farm Services Agency at the U.S. Department of Agriculture had agreed to their request to approve economic assistance to Maine farmers.

The organization approved a $400,000 grant through its Emergency Conservation Program to help approximately 50 farmers who suffered crop damage during recent storms. It is $100,000 less than what officials in Maine had requested.

The heavy rains 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.

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.

Last month, the senators sent a letter to Bruce Nelson, acting administrator of the Farm Service Agency at USDA in support of the Maine farmers’ request for assistance. In their letter, the senators stressed the importance of potatoes in Maine’s economy. They told Nelson any money granted to help farmers repair the damage to their fields could stimulate the economy, as farmers would hire workers to operate equipment and purchase fuel through local distributors.

“This is welcome news and we truly appreciate the agency’s cooperation with our request for an expedited review of the request for ECP funding for these farmers,” said Collins and Snowe in a joint statement. “July is a critical month for Maine’s potato industry, which is the backbone of the northern Maine economy. This funding will help farmers affected by last month’s devastating storms repair the damage to their fields and help prevent further losses.”

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.

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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