MARS HILL, Maine — The strong smell of rotten potatoes in Mars Hill has become a recent source of chatter in the agricultural community.
However, Ray Mersereau, interim town manager, said poor-smelling potatoes is not a new occurrence in town.
“Mars Hill is an agricultural town and there are potato houses nearby. We had so much rain last summer that a lot of potatoes ended up having excess water in them,” he said. “When that happens, they tend to break down in storage. They act just like acid; when one bad potato touches a good potato, now you have two bad potatoes. It happens very quickly, so when farmers discover a bad spot in a bin, they try to get out the good stuff and then go back and remove the bad potatoes.
“It’s not a regular problem; it only happens once in awhile, and it really only happens when they’re hauling the bad stuff out, and when there’s no wind and the atmosphere is heavy,” said Mersereau, who was a potato broker for 20 years. “It’s been this way since I can remember and I can remember back to 1960. This is not a new phenomenon, and I’ve never had anybody come into the office and complain to me about the smell.”
Tim Hobbs, director of development and grower relations for the Maine Potato Board, said the board had not heard about the recent Mars Hill issue and therefore could not comment specifically on the smell.
“Every year you have a little rot and some stuff that’s coming out of storage,” he said. “Some years are worse than others because of the growing season, but I think the reason there’s interest in Mars Hill is they’ve got potato houses right behind the Main Street area and a lot more people can pick up on the smell. If it was on the outside of town, most people wouldn’t even notice.”
Hobbs said laws prevent the burying of rotten potatoes, but growers this time of year can take advantage of the temperatures.
“They can spread them out [in a field] so that they freeze,” he said, noting that a list of best management practices can be found on the board’s website. “This kind of thing happens every year.”
Recognizing that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” Mersereau said the “smell is in the eye of the smeller.”
“I’m very sensitive to certain foods, for example. If you were cooking with garlic or some other spices, it would pretty near turn my stomach,” he said, “but you might go into the same room and say, ‘Wow! That smells good.’ That’s just a difference in people.
“Yes, we do occasionally get that bad odor, but it doesn’t last 24/7 and it isn’t every day,” said Mersereau. “It’s something that the farmer really has no control over. They don’t want their potatoes to go bad, so they’re doing what they can to remove them.”
Mersereau could not identify which potato farmer was experiencing the rotten potatoes.