Aroostook is the farthest northeastern county in the United States. Though sparsely populated in terms of sheer real estate, it is the largest county east of the Mississippi River (6,826 square miles).
Aroostook, or “The County,” as Mainers often refer to it, is said to be the place where more potatoes were produced between 1928 and 1958 than by any state in the nation.
During this time, without a doubt, Tom Qualey’s pioneering forbearers helped establish the prominence of potato production in Maine agriculture.
“Do I have a farming tradition? I sure do,” Qualey said. “My heritage in this industry goes back five generations. When my family first emigrated from Ireland during the early 1800s, they established themselves on the land, and each generation has continued our farming tradition.”
Qualey was born and reared on a dairy farm in Sherman, Maine. His father, Arthur Qualey, grew a few acres of potatoes on the side. Tom first tried his hand at producing his own crop while in high school.
“When I left the farm to attend college, I knew I didn’t want to remain in the dairy business, he said.
“When I later returned to the home farm, I started growing potatoes with my father and my brother, John.”
Three Oak Farms is the name of their company.
Qualey has contributed leadership to the potato industry on both state and national levels.
In 2004 he was elected by his fellow Maine growers to the United States Potato Board. Before becoming a Board member, Tom served his state industry as the president of the Maine Potato Board.
“Tom has a broad perspective of the industry and his heart is in the right place in representing the needs and interests of different growers,” said Don Flannery, executive director of the Maine Potato Board. “His leadership qualified him to be nominated as a USPB representative from Maine. He believes in the potato industry and actively works for its prosperity and success.”
Potatoes play a critical role in Maine’s economy. In the region of Aroostook County and the western mountain regions of Bethel and Fryeburg there are nearly 400 growers.
Tom and his brother, John, farm 1,000 acres and grow chip-stock potatoes. Their rotation crops are canola, barley, oats and hay.
The soils in Maine are very shallow—only about eight to 10 inches deep—so single-pass tillage equipment is placed in front of the planters to help keep the moisture in.
“We start planting around Mother’s Day and generally finish by the end of the month,” Qualey said. “We use a four-row Harriston pick planter. Maine has a good supply of local seed, and we grow Frito-Lay varieties for Frito-Lay and Snowdens for Pennsylvania chip processors.
“Here in the Northeast, we are subject to every extreme Mother Nature can give us, from wet to dry weather. This year we had four weeks of rain—nonstop—and broke all our previous state records.
“So holding the moisture in the soil at planting wasn’t such a concern this year. Fighting late blight is a concern every year, but is even more of an issue this year because of our extreme amounts of rain and the humidity levels.”
Harvest begins in mid-September and usually concludes on Columbus Day. Frost will damage the crop if harvest is delayed much longer.
Qualey’s harvest equipment is manufactured by Thomas, a local equipment company. “I have a two-row air-harvester, two four-row windrowers and one two-row windrower,” he said. “We pick up 12 rows per pass.”
Because Maine and Aroostook County are so isolated from major market centers and the rest of New England, the cost and availability of transportation is a challenge.
“We are at the end of the run with no opportunities with back freight on our rail lines,” Qualey said, “and we are a border state with Canada, which has its own set of challenges.”
Maine is promoting locally grown products through its ‘Get Real. Get Maine!’ logo, which may be used in conjunction with food or other agricultural products primarily grown, raised, harvested or processed in Maine. Seasonal farmers markets are also proliferating all over the state, providing opportunities for growers with small farming operations to market their production.
Qualey supplies several local restaurants with potatoes. “We sell a few hundredweight each year to a coffee shop and three local restaurants—The Big Apple, the Terrace and the Sherman Restaurant,” he said. “These customers appreciate knowing the quality potatoes they buy are locally grown by local farmers.”
In potato production, Maine now typically ranks seventh or eighth in the nation. In 1958, when Aroostook County led the country in production, over 200,000 acres of potatoes were planted in the county. In 2007, there were 57,000 acres.
Potato acreage, which had been declining steadily for several decades, has stabilized in recent years because of investments in agricultural practices, storage and processing technologies.
Historically, about 65 percent of all potatoes were dedicated toward table-stock usage.
Today, over 65 percent of all potatoes harvested move on to become value-added products.
Qualey co-chairs the USPB International Marketing Committee with Cheryl Koompin of American Falls, Idaho.
Though he doesn’t personally export potatoes to foreign markets, he holds that strong opportunities abroad will provide increased opportunities for all U.S. growers. One in almost every five rows of potatoes grown in the United States is consumed in foreign markets.
“Though Tom grows chipping potatoes for processing, he sees the big picture,” Flannery said. “He represents the interests of growers in other sectors, recognizes their needs and works hard to improve the industry for all growers.”
Qualey also serves as the director of the Agricultural Bargaining Council and is a board member with Maine Potato Growers.
He also serves on the Integrated Pest Management Council and represents agricultural interests on the Maine Board of Pesticide Control.
As a USPB board member, Qualey has also served on the Domestic Marketing Committee and has chaired the Finance and Industry Communications and Policy committees.
He says the USPB provides important tools and resources like outreach and communications with growers and state managers.
“Before I became a member of the Board, I was not aware of the extent of its programs,” Qualey said.
“Now I recognize the Board works very hard in understanding the trends in the global potato market and is very pro-active in identifying these trends and assisting in marketing their products.”