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PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — After months of struggles due to the shutdown of the food service industry during the coronavirus pandemic, the Aroostook County potato industry is seeing increased sales as states begin to reopen their economies.
Rather than going unsold, many more potatoes from the 2019 crop will end up on plates and trays across the country as restaurant-ready items such as french fries and mashed potatoes.
Two months ago, many farmers were left with few buyers for their 2019 crop as restaurants closed and fairs, festivals and concerts were canceled across the country. With fewer orders coming in, processors failed to find homes for bags upon bags of french fries they had primed for restaurants and, as a result, decreased orders for new potatoes.
Concern for Maine’s $100 million-plus potato industry continues, including at the federal level. On June 1, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, wrote a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue calling for direct relief for potato farmers nationwide.
Yet, as farmers finish planting for the 2020 potato harvest, Maine Potato Board President Don Flannery said there are uncertainties in the industry’s future.
Flannery said he expects processors to be cautious as the economy recovers and purchase fewer potatoes from the 2020 crop. He said the decreased demand would drive farmers to grow 4,000 to 5,000 fewer acres of potatoes than the 2019 crop, about a 10 percent decrease.
Because Maine residents make up a small number of those who consume Aroostook potatoes, sales will be dictated by how much each state opens its economy in the future. As of Sunday, many states — including highly populous ones such as Texas, Florida and Georgia — have begun to allow restaurants to reopen for dine-in services.
Still, many of the traditional venues for Maine potatoes remain closed off. Sporting events, concerts and festivals have virtually halted nationwide. Even in states experiencing quicker reopenings, governors have imposed rules preventing restaurants from operating at capacity.
Yet, Flannery did have some optimistic words. In late April, Flannery had said that 12 percent to 15 percent of Maine’s potatoes from the 2019 harvest had gone unsold amid decreased demand from processors. He said sales had since increased, with processors trying to use as many potatoes as possible.
Many potatoes had also found homes on the fresh market in grocery stores, Flannery said. It was perhaps unsurprising because stay-at-home orders led to more people opting to cook at home.
“Demand was really, really good,” Flannery said. “Some of the potatoes that were destined for processing went there.”
Garrett Hemphill, co-owner of Hemphill Farms in Presque Isle, said 2020 had become a better year for the farm than anticipated.
Because Hemphill sells seed potatoes to farmers, who in turn sell to processors McCain Foods, Pineland Farms and Penobscot McCrum, it had indirectly been affected by the decreased demand from processors.
Yet, the farm ended up selling all of its seed potatoes from last year’s crop, which Hemphill attributed to the gradual opening of the nationwide economy.
“It’s gotten a little bit better at the end,” Hemphill said. “I guess the president was trying to get the governors to re-open the restaurants.”
Hemphill also said his farm had planted about the same number of potatoes for this year’s harvest — which he said it should finish planting this week — as it did last year.
Much of the industry’s future will be decided by events outside of its industry’s control, including future outbreaks, Flannery said. Until then, he said the easiest way for Mainers to help the industry would be to buy Maine-grown potato and potato products at their local grocery stores.
“[How to help the industry is] a question I get asked a lot,” Flannery said. “The easiest way is to be supportive of us and buy Maine first.”