May 26, 2018
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Potato growers warily watching stored crops for degradation from excessive rain

By Jen Lynds, BDN Staff

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — With 99 percent of this year’s approximately 56,000 acres of potatoes harvested, Aroostook County potato growers are watching the stored product to gauge the effect of massive amounts of rainfall this past summer.

Don Flannery, executive director of the Maine Potato Board, said Friday afternoon that a handful of growers still have some crop in the ground due to this week’s rain. Once the sun returns, he estimated that it would take another three days or so to finish off the harvest.

This year’s crop was not heavily affected by disease or insect damage, but Flannery said that this winter will be “interesting” and “challenging” for growers, as they watch the stored crops in potato houses to see what, if any, effect the excessive moisture will have. The water damage could lead some of the crop to degrade in storage.

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. An estimated 10 percent of the crop was lost due to weather conditions.

“With 20 to 30 inches of water more than normal, it hasn’t been the best of years,” Flannery said Friday. “It is one of those years where it will take time to see how much of an impact weather had. It appears right now that the crop is not going to hold up in storage as well as we would like.”

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 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.

Flannery said he heard from a few growers who had trouble finding help to harvest the crop, but overall, most available jobs were filled.

“I didn’t hear too many issues because schools in central Aroostook still let kids out for harvest recess so they can help with the harvest,” he said. “But there were some growers who said that they just couldn’t seem to find enough help.”

Once Thanksgiving comes, he said, industry officials will have a much better picture of how much the crop suffered due to the excessive moisture.

“I think by then, we’ll have a better idea about the kind of issues we are facing,” said Flannery.

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