Maine Potato Board says initial crop quality good, despite rain, tornadoes

A harvester works the  potato fields in Caribou in this file photo. Officials with the Maine Potato Board are saying this year’s crop looks good despite less than ideal weather conditions.
Bangor Daily News file photo
A harvester works the potato fields in Caribou in this file photo. Officials with the Maine Potato Board are saying this year’s crop looks good despite less than ideal weather conditions.
Posted Sept. 12, 2011, at 9:52 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 13, 2011, at 10:15 a.m.

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine – Although it has been one of the tougher years for potato growers in Aroostook County with crop damage from three tornadoes and excessive rainfall, officials with the Maine Potato Board are downplaying rumors of extensive crop loss.

Don Flannery, executive director of the Maine Potato Board, said Monday that this year’s potato harvest is only in the preliminary stages. A small portion of the crop has been harvested and taken to processing facilities, such as McCain Foods in Easton, and to chip plants, but the bulk of the approximately 56,000 acres of spuds planted are still in the ground.

“Right now, the crop that has been harvested looks good,” said Flannery. “The potatoes are a good size, they are healthy. It is a hard call because it is so early, but from what we’ve seen so far, the quality looks good.”

Flannery said that rumors that 20 to 30 percent of the crop has been lost due to weather conditions are not accurate.

This growing season has been hampered by severe weather, including three tornadoes that went through the area in early June. Heavy rains associated with the tornadoes destroyed crops in some fields and washed away the topsoil in many. Once the topsoil is gone, the productive yield of acreage is reduced dramatically 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 Woodland Center Road in Caribou became so flooded the runoff spilled over onto the roadway. Growers in the Caribou and Fort Fairfield areas were most heavily affected.

“We have lost some of the crop due to the tornadoes taking some of the topsoil and the rain,” said Flannery. “I would estimate that 10 percent of the crop may have been lost.”

U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe successfully secured $400,000 from the Farm Services Agency at the U.S. Department of Agriculture through its Emergency Conservation Program in July to help 50 farmers whose farms were damaged.

This July was the wettest recorded in northern Maine, according to the National Weather Service in Caribou.

Meteorologists said that Caribou got 7.93 inches of rain that month, breaking the old record of 6.83 inches set in 1957. June was also a record-setter, with 9.03 inches.

By comparison, Bangor had 2.9 inches of rain for the month, which is about 35 percent below normal.

The past five days have benefited the industry by helping to dry out the fields, Flannery said Monday, adding that he feels that growers have been proactive in preventing the spread of late blight.

According to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, late blight was found in Bridgewater, Caribou, Fort Fairfield, Limestone and Caswell. Fields were sprayed with protective fungicides.

Late blight, which is caused by the fungus Phytophthora infestans, infects plants in the nightshade family such as potatoes and tomatoes and is most destructive during cool, moist weather. The plant’s leaves form black lesions, affected potatoes rot in the soil, and tubers appearing hardy enough to harvest usually rot in storage. The disease can destroy an entire crop rapidly because the associated fungus produces numerous spores that can be carried long distances through the air or transported by infected plants. Late blight was the cause of the Irish potato famine in the 1840s.

“I think that most people tried to take care of blight when it was found,” said Flannery. “At the same time, we won’t really be able to tell the full extent of the damage from blight this season until the crop is harvested and in storage. But we have certainly had worse years in terms of blight.”

Potato harvest will swing into full gear in the coming weeks.

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