MARS HILL, Maine — A local company that operates one of just three potato processing facilities in the state celebrated with farmers and industry officials Wednesday during the groundbreaking of its $7.5 million expansion.
Naturally Potatoes will increase the amount of potatoes it is buying from growers and add more jobs to the Mars Hill facility as a result of the project, according to company officials. As Mars Hill’s largest employers, about 100 people hold jobs there.
William Haggett, chairman and chief executive officer of Naturally Potatoes, said during remarks at a celebration outside the company’s manufacturing and office complex that the expansion will double the facility’s production and storage capability and allow Naturally Potatoes to process 50 million pounds of Maine potatoes next year.
The expansion also will include 12,000 square feet of dry storage and double the refrigerated warehousing area. It also will more than double the product cooling capacity, add a new water blancher, bring in new mashed potato kettles, add potato packaging equipment, provide a new employee cafeteria and add space for a cheese packaging line. In the process, an employee parking area will be constructed as well as systems to control rainwater runoff.
Naturally Potatoes is in the second year of a two-year agreement with its growers, and it expects to purchase 20 percent more potatoes and pay slightly higher prices per hundredweight this year than last. They also expect to increase employment by 10 to 15 workers within the next 18 months.
Naturally Potatoes was founded in 1995 by Rodney McCrum, the company’s president and chief operating officer. He was joined by a group of several other Aroostook County farmers to give northern Maine potato growers another outlet for their crop. The company started out manufacturing ready-to-cook potatoes that went through a unique process that extended the product’s refrigerated shelf life. The company now offers partially cooked cut products with a 50-day shelf life and fully cooked mashed products with a 65-day shelf life.
Naturally Potatoes’ cut potato products and mashed potatoes were distributed to grocery stores, restaurants, airlines, medical institutions and government facilities across the country. Its clients include Disney, Applebee’s, Hannaford and Golden Corral.
The business was sold in 2005 to California-based Basic American Foods, a privately held company and one of the world’s largest suppliers of dehydrated potato and bean products. It operated the Mars Hill plant for five years until putting it up for sale five years later. In 2010, it was purchased by The Libra Foundation, McCrum and Haggett in order to keep the jobs in Aroostook County.
Besides the potatoes grown on its 900-acre farm in St. Agatha, Naturally Potatoes buys its spuds from between 12 and 15 other growers in Aroostook County,
Naturally Potatoes has expanded its product line to include seasoned shredded potatoes, redskin diced potatoes and even gluten-free natural mashed potatoes.
On Wednesday afternoon, McCrum said that he was pleased to see the company that he and his fellow farmers established was thriving.
“A never give up attitude fueled this company,” he said. “I’d like to especially thank our workers. We make something here that works, and it’s not easy to do. We also couldn’t do it without our growers.”
Haggett lauded the town of Mars Hill for for its tax incentive financing support and also thanked the state for its pine tree zone benefits. He also credited local growers and Naturally Potatoes employees for providing and selecting the best refrigerated potatoes available to make up the finished product.
“Having 25 or more trucks every week filled with our potatoes headed for hundreds of happy customers around the United States is what justifies investments such as those planned to follow today’s groundbreaking,” said Haggett. “Best yet, what this expansion signals is that Naturally Potatoes’ best days still lie ahead.”
Walt Whitcomb, commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture.Conservation and Forestry also spoke at the ceremony.
“You are the bright spot in Aroostook County and for many places in Maine for adding jobs and growing,” he said. “It takes a team effort to make this all work.”