Workers from Butler Farms watch a bin piler unload thousands of potatoes into a former military storage facility at Loring Development Center. Credit: Hannah Catlin / Aroostook Republican

After nearly three decades of vacancy, the warehouses and airplane hangars of the former Loring Air Force Base have acquired new tenants — millions of freshly harvested Aroostook County potatoes.

The potatoes are as out of place as they look at Loring — which has been largely vacant since the military shut the base down in the mid-1990s and it was reinvented as Loring Development Authority. The County’s potato farmers storing their crops there have never had to do so in the past, but the yield from this year’s harvest is so large that many farmers have had to get creative with stashing their spuds.

After 2020 — when drought shrank the harvest and pandemic supply chain breakdown shrank the revenues — some farmers are reporting crop yields as much as 20 percent larger than anticipated this year.

Potatoes from Griffeth Farms in Limestone have totally filled an airplane hangar at least the size of a football field. Credit: Hannah Catlin / Aroostook Republican

While the yield is largely good news, the sheer size of the 2021 harvest is creating new problems for some farmers, who now need to find and then adapt to makeshift storage facilities that aren’t built to preserve the quality of the potatoes.

“You kind of have a hunch in the spring — how quick the crop comes up and how good it looked and the stands looked very good. But it doesn’t really hit you until you’re really digging the crop,” Caswell-based farmer Bret Butler said. “It blew me away, really.”

Bret Butler of Butler Farms poses in front of the growing pile of potatoes he’s storing at Loring Development Authority as a backup to his maxed out potato houses. Credit: Hannah Catlin / Aroostook Republican

On top of the storage facilities he already has, Butler bought a new potato house this season when he realized how large his yield would be. Then when that filled up, he turned to Loring. In the six years since he started farming, Butler has never had a harvest like this.

Truckloads of Butler Farms potatoes arrived at the base on Wednesday, where employees used huge conveyor belts to fill the football field-sized military storage facility he’s renting. And with 150 acres left to dig, Butler thinks he may need to find even more storage.

Down the road, just 10 percent of Guerrette Farm’s total harvest has filled a large L-shaped warehouse in Loring’s Blue Goose complex. Farmer Brian Guerrette is grateful for Loring stepping in at the last minute to make space available, but said there are issues with storing potatoes in temporary facilities like this.

Brian Guerrette (right) and his nephew, Matt Whitten, stand in front of a pile of potatoes so large it has completely filled his backup storage facility, an L shaped warehouse at the former Loring Airforce Base. Credit: Hannah Catlin / Aroostook Republican

The weather has been unseasonably warm, and unlike regular potato houses, Loring’s buildings lack climate control mechanisms.

On Wednesday afternoon, it was 70 degrees on the base. Inside Guerrette’s building, the potatoes were at roughly 60 degrees, but he’s trying to get them down to 50 — a safer long-term storage temperature.

Without the ability to carefully tune the environment to protect the potatoes from the heat, Guerrette has had to come up with other ways to preserve the condition of the crop.

Rather than simply stacking the potatoes on the ground, for example, Guerrette and his crew laid down large plastic piping first, to move air under the pile and keep the crop ventilated. As for the temperature, much of that will likely come down to luck and the changing seasons.

Guerrette Farms has run large industrial plastic tubing under its potato pile at the former Loring Airforce Base to help simulate some of the ventilation and climate control the farmers would have in a normal potato house. Credit: Hannah Catlin / Aroostook Republican

“Colder weather is guaranteed really soon,” Guerrette said. “This type of storage, it’s certainly better with cooler temperatures.”

While lots of farmers are now grappling with this problem, they may be in luck. The crop isn’t only big, the potatoes are in really good condition, Maine Potato Board president Don Flannery said.

“We have a very high quality crop this year — that’s important when you’re putting your crop in temporary storage,” Flannery said. “If we’d had a lot of rain just before harvest, you may have had problems with soft rot.”

Aroostook County can thank Mother Nature for the success of this year’s harvest overall, Flannery said. Although Maine remains in a years-long drought pattern, the rain fell off and on throughout the summer, and the weather never got too hot to stifle potato growth. Or as Flannery puts it: “the planets lined up.”

Guerrette Farm potatoes spill out of the back of the warehouse at Loring where they’re being temporarily stashed. Credit: Hannah Catlin / Aroostook Republican

The next challenge will be finding a place to sell all the excess potatoes. Most of Butler’s potatoes are already contracted — he sells to frozen and refrigerated potato manufacturers like McCain Foods, Pineland Farms Potato Company and Penobscot McCrum.

But the supply chain hasn’t totally healed from the past year and a half of worker and supply shortages. Half of the potatoes Butler is going to store at Loring were supposed to go straight from the ground to McCain, but the processor hasn’t been able to handle as many potatoes as usual this year. McCain did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday morning.

Guerrette Farms potatoes turn a corner in the L shaped warehouse they’re stored in. On the edges, large wooden crates catch the overflow from the 16 foot tall pile. Credit: Hannah Catlin / Aroostook Republican

“It’s a good crop. I don’t think we’ll have a problem moving it. It’s just when, is the question,” Butler said. “I hope we don’t have to sit on these in cold storages. Everyone has stuffed potatoes in places they probably never would have imagined … I hope everyone gets out of it alright here.”

Butler is hoping that the spectacular conditions in Aroostook County will give farmers an advantage in selling the potatoes outside their regular market.

“The quality is good enough that we can maybe compete with the [American] West, since they had a drought,” he said. “Maybe that will help get rid of some of these extra potatoes.”

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Hannah Catlin

Hannah Catlin is a reporter at the St. John Valley Times/Fiddlehead Focus in Madawaska, Maine.