While Gov. Paul LePage’s remarks at a town hall event Wednesday included a puzzling claim about wasted Maine potatoes, some of his concerns about energy costs are shared in the industry.
At the Yarmouth town hall gathering, LePage said that the state’s energy costs and new minimum wage law are discouraging new potato factories from opening, and that the state has struggled to find investors for a potato flake and starch facility that could buy otherwise unmarketable spuds.
“The reason it’s so important is that two-thirds of the potatoes that are grown in Maine are not of the quality that can make it onto the table, so they go into a landfill because there’s no other place to go,” LePage said. “We used to have starch factories but they’re all gone.”
Adrienne Bennett, spokesperson for the governor, clarified Thursday that he “intended to speak about off-grade potatoes and draw attention to the need to increase capacity to process this off-grade produce.”
Bennett said that growers of fresh market or “table stock” potatoes have told LePage that about five percent of their crop ends up damaged and unmarketable, and that “one half to two-thirds of [those damaged or] off-grade potatoes currently have no place to be processed.”
Only about 10 percent to 15 percent of Maine potatoes are grown for table stock. About 20 percent are grown as seed potatoes, to be replanted or sold to other farmers, and about 65 percent are grown for processing into chips, fries and prepared products.
In essence, based on those estimates, the wasted table stock amounts to less than half a percent of the total annual potato harvest.
Maine potato farmers grew an estimated 14.5 million hundredweight (or 1.45 billion pounds) on 46,000 acres in 2016, according to estimates by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The year’s planted acres were down 9 percent from 2015, while the average yield of 315 hundredweight per acre was down only 1.5 percent from 2015’s bumper crop, and higher than in all other northeast states.
The McCain Foods factory in Easton remains the largest buyer of Maine potatoes, sourcing about one-third of the annual potato crop. Other significant processing buyers include Pineland Farms Potato Co. in Mars Hill, which is being acquired by Ohio-based Bob Evans Foods, and Frito Lay, which manufactures chips from New England growers at a plant in Connecticut.
It is not clear if the governor’s office or other state agencies have been trying to recruit starch, flake or other factories.The governor’s office did not identify any potential developers for such a facility.
Don Flannery, executive director of the Maine Potato Board, said he’s not aware of any companies eyeing Maine for a starch or other type of potato processing facility.
Maine was once home to numerous starch factories. The British food company Tate & Lyle still operates a potato starch facility in Houlton and Western Polymer operates a starch facility in Fort Fairfield. But the last time the Maine Potato Board heard from any company interested in a starch or flake facility was more than 20 years ago, Flannery said.
As for the local rumor that Frito Lay or another manufacturer was planning to set up a facility in the partly-empty Aroostook Centre Mall in Presque Isle, Flannery said he is not aware of any such project.
Jon Gulliver, director of investor and community relations with the Northern Maine Development Commission, said the economic development agency was in talks in recent years with two different potato manufacturers.
One company, which could not be identified due to a non-disclosure agreement, was interested about five years ago in potentially locating a frozen potato products factory in the region, Gulliver said.
Gulliver said that “energy costs and a changing market stopped that project.”
Two years ago NMDC, in conjunction with the Maine International Trade Center, held discussions with the Irish potato chip company Tayto, but nothing ever evolved and it was “just exploratory on their part,” Gulliver said.
Flannery noted he does not speak on behalf of any companies, but said that energy costs are a perennial concern for processing companies and farmers.
“Energy costs in our industry are a concern — it’s a big item for processors and individual growers,” Flannery said.
Thanks to low global oil prices, growers have gotten something of a break in recent years for fuel and, to a lesser extent, fertilizer and pesticides. But both growers and processors rely on large amounts of electricity for storing potatoes and turning them into prepared and frozen products.
“It’s a huge part of our input costs,” Flannery said.