PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — This year, for the first time in more than half a decade, the traditional potato harvest was different in some parts of Aroostook County.
While the acreage planted did not differ significantly from years past, the history behind the harvest did. This was the first year that a number of school districts did not adjourn classes so that students could work.
But the change did not seem to hamper production, according to officials from the Maine Potato Board, as between 80 and 85 percent of the crop has now been harvested.
Don Flannery, executive director of the Presque Isle-based board, said late last week that growers are reaping a “quality crop” this season. He noted that farmers were not affected by the severe drought conditions that gripped the Midwest or by the excessive rainfall that plagued the crop in Maine last year.
“A quality crop is going into storage,” Flannery explained. “We’re looking at a crop that is good quality and somewhere close to average yield.”
Maine potato growers planted a total of 59,000 acres of potatoes in 2012, according to figures provided by the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. That is up slightly from the 56,000 acres planted in 2011.
While potatoes are grown statewide, the majority of the 380 potato farmers and family-owned potato operations are located in Aroostook County.
Flannery said that this year’s crop is expected to be comparable in yield to the 12-year average of 290 hundredweight per acre. The final amount won’t be known until about six months from now after the entire crop is sold, he said.
It was a change that growers welcomed this year after a challenging 2011 season that saw crop losses of 25-30 percent due to excessive weather and three tornadoes that went through the area early that 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. The effect carried over once the potatoes were in storage, as growers lost spuds in the potato houses due to rot.
Flannery said that this past summer was drier, so he is not expecting storage issues.
The history of the industry also changed in the spring, when several districts in southern Aroostook decided to eliminate harvest break.
SAD 29 in Houlton and SAD 70 in Hodgdon, which typically adjourned school for a week during potato harvest to allow students to help harvest the crop, opted in April not to continue the practice. The decision mirrored those made in SAD 14 in Danforth and RSU 50 in Stacyville. Both districts eliminated harvest break several years ago.
Officials in Houlton and Hodgdon made their decisions after surveying students and parents and discovering that the number of youths working the harvest was dwindling. Last fall, just 19 students in grades 7-12 in SAD 29 worked during harvest.
A number of schools in central and northern Aroostook continue to schedule the harvest recess, as many growers in those areas still employ students to pick or work on harvesters.
In Maine, 65 percent of the crop is sold for processing, 20 percent is sold as seed potatoes and the remaining crop is sold as fresh or table-stock potatoes.
The potato industry employs 2,650 people directly and 2,400 indirectly.