PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — By mid-September, Aroostook County potato growers have already started lining up people to work on harvest crews and are hoping for good weather to get their crop into storage.
Maine potatoes, wild blueberry pie, lobster rolls, smoked salmon on a stick, handmade soaps, glass bead jewelry, state tourism information and more are all available at The Big E, which participating vendors say is a worthwhile experience despite the considerable distance, cost and time involved in taking part.
Founded in 1916, the Big E draws representatives from all six New England states to share ideas, improve agriculture and showcase the traditional and new products that make each state unique. It takes place for 17 days each September and features top-name entertainment, international exhibits, agricultural contests and daily events. It has been named one of the top 10 fairs in North America, according to its website, and contributes $225 million to the local economy. This year’s fair began Sept. 13 and wraps up Sept. 29.
On the the 125-acre fairgrounds is the Avenue of States and the State of Maine Building. Inside, 17 vendors sell Maine products or offer information about the state. The Maine Potato Board has been an exhibitor for more than 35 years, and Don Flannery, its executive director, has said that “you can’t pay for the kind of exposure that you get at the Big E.”
Earlier this week, Tim Hobbs, director of development and grower relations with the board, agreed.
“We sell 80,000 pounds of potatoes over 17 days,” he said, a level that is equivalent to 3 acres of spuds. “The doors open to our booth at 10 a.m, and we already have about 150 people waiting in line for their potato with their choice of cheese, butter, sour cream, bacon bits or chives. We have nine stations open at all times, and we go through ten or eleven potatoes a minute. And we get a person through the line with their potato and their topping in 16 minutes. Its not too bad.”
Hobbs said that he and other board members and growers interact with the crowds, seeing new and old people each year. He said they feel it’s great exposure for the industry. Proceeds from the Big E provide a “substantial portion” of the board’s budget and go toward education and research.
The Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine also has a booth in the Maine Building, selling wild blueberries, pies, crisp and other treats. David Bell, executive director of the Orono-based commission, said that they pass out a variety of informational material to the huge crowds they see during the fair.
“Its a great opportunity for us to expose people to our products and educate the public that there is a difference between wild blueberries and other kinds,” he explained. “And we also see it as a chance to show people that blueberries are not just a seasonal fruit. We hand out frozen samples to show them that they can be enjoyed year round and provide information about how to freeze them. We use the Big E not really as an opportunity to make money, but more to support the state and Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.”
The Maine Office of Tourism has also been a longtime vendor in the Maine Building, according to its director, Carolann Ouellette. She said the state garners “incredible” exposure by participating in the fair.
“Its one of the top ten fairs in North America, and the traffic flowing through there is just incredible,” she said. “It gives us a chance to interact directly with so many people, and we distribute literature about state parks, state fairs, bicycle routes and events, ways to explore Maine, leaf peeping and more.”
Ouellette said that the office primarily focuses on getting visitors to book a trip to the state, because they believe that first time visitors will be hooked and automatically want to return.
“When we are working during The Big E, we have so many people come up to us and tell us that they have been to Maine and just loved it there and they can’t wait to return,” she said. “Or they will tell us about how much they loved growing up in Aroostook County. And when they are telling us that, the people around them who might have never been to Maine hear that, too, and maybe that gives them a little extra nudge to book a trip. The Big E is really great exposure for the state as a whole. One million people walking through those grounds, and the Maine building is always busy. It is good for Massachusetts, and it’s good for us too.”