PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — The rain that poured across Aroostook County in late September after one of the driest summers on record was too late to save the region’s potato farmers from a smaller harvest — down approximately 20 percent from last year.
The reduced yields will drive revenue down for the potato industry, already struggling with decreased demand because of COVID-19 restrictions on restaurants and events. Maine producers normally grow nearly 2 billion pounds of potatoes a year, a hugely profitable industry centered in The County, according to the National Potato Council.
Maine Potato Board President Don Flannery anticipated that crop yields per acre would be down at least 20 percent, but said he was waiting on actual numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in November.
While Flannery said growers would lose “substantial” amounts of income due to drought conditions, he said demand looks like it will remain solid for the potatoes they do put on the market — though far from pre-COVID levels.
Consumers nationwide eat Aroostook County potatoes, whether they are sold plainly in grocery stores or processed as french fries or potato chips.
But in the weeks after the COVID-19 pandemic hit Maine in March, the potato industry struggled to find buyers amid a nationwide closure of restaurants. At one point, it looked as if farmers would need to dump nearly half of their 2019 crop, Flannery said.
Conditions improved in the spring, and Flannery said the industry is far from that initial low point — though many restaurants are operating at reduced capacity, consumers were filling in the gaps with increased takeout orders. And people were purchasing potatoes for home cooked meals.
Jim Dwyer — an associate professor of agriculture science and agribusiness at the University of Maine at Presque Isle — said yield declines were bound to happen with The County seeing more than five inches less rainfall than average from June to August
“Eighty percent of a potato tuber is water,” Dwyer said. “So, when you have a reduced rainfall, and a reduced amount of water available, you are either going to have smaller tubers, fewer tubers, or a combination of both.”
But Dwyer said Aroostook County’s rich soil, known as Caribou loam, could have prevented a more massive calamity: it allowed the crops to more easily hold onto the rainwater they did receive.
“It really proved this year how good the soils are here in Aroostook County,” Dwyer said. “The crop seems to have a bit of a smaller yield, but the quality seems to be quite good.”
In September, the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared Aroostook County a drought disaster area, allowing farmers to apply for emergency loans from the federal government.
Sara Corey Parker — a sales specialist at Monticello-based Daniel J. Corey Farms, which grows crops at eight spots across Aroostook County — said that yields on her sites were down about 16 or 17 percent, though the drought’s impact varied by location. The hardest hit was their Houlton farm, which saw a 25 percent decrease.
The farm — which sells 20 percent of its potatoes to processors like Frito Lay, Humpty Dumpty and Cape Cod — will need to increase their price to make up for yield losses, Parker said.
However, price increases were not possible for potatoes available in grocery stores — often referred to as table stock potatoes — because they needed to compete with farms in western states like North Dakota and Nebraska.
Parker said her company could have come out much worse from the drought, but it continued to be a difficult period for The County’s potato industry.
“This is definitely going to be a hit,” Parker said. “I just hope a lot of people come out of this okay.”
Garrett Hemphill, co-owner of Hemphill Farms in Presque Isle — said yields were down about 30 percent because of the drought. He said the lower yields would be a hit on the business, but pricing and demand looked promising, as did the quality of the crop.
“The potatoes are fine,” Hemphill said. “Just less of them produced.”