In a world where big box stores and nationwide chains have replaced local and family owned businesses, it's good to know that there is still a place for a multi-generational family farm. The Roope family, recently awarded Farm Family of the year by the Maine Potato Board, has had their farm "in the family" since the 1800s.
Brothers Bruce and Brandon Roope inherited the farm in Presque Isle, Maine, from their father, Robert Jr., who in turn inherited it from his father, Robert Sr. In the 1920s two family farms merged when Robert Sr. took over the farm of his wife, Margaret. It's easy to see why the Roopes take growing so seriously and personally."
"Our only business is farming. We've done other jobs, but farming is our living," Brandon said.
Bruce and Brandon run the farm together in a way they've described more than once as "two separate farms run together." Brandon further commented that "we make decisions together, share equipment etc." They run the farm with two hired men that have been with them for over 20 years.
They grew up learning potato growing and the values that go with it from their father. Robert Jr. retired 16 years ago but at the age of 81 still works when he can. Most people try to find ways to get out of working at retirement age. Growers like Robert Jr. don't want to let it go. "I hope to be working when I'm his age," Brandon said, "but maybe not as much."
The farm today is about 900 acres with 400 acres of potatoes and the rest rotated between grain, barley and other crops. The Roopes affirm potatoes are their "primary product." They grow Russet Burbank and have stayed away from newer trends to specialty potatoes and organics.
Like all farms in that part of the country, the Roope brothers don't have to worry about irrigation either. The rain takes care of watering their crop. "Sometimes that's not a good thing," Brandon said. "We get two or three inches in a day sometimes."
"Our market has evolved from growing seed potatoes, table potatoes to processed potatoes," Brandon said. Unlike most farms in other states their size, the Roope sell their crop exclusively to one buyer, McCain Foods Limited, a Canadian company that produces frozen french fries. Having just one guaranteed buyer for the whole crop every year make the selling phase much simpler.
Having a specialty buyer means having to be sure they meet the quality standards McCain requires, which the Roopes cite as one their biggest challenges. Of course they also have all the other issues facing potato growers these days: fuel price, seed cost and lower selling prices for their crop. They attribute surviving to "adapting and evolving."
Brandon and Bruce Roope have been actively involved in the potato grower community in Maine. "My brother and I are involved in nearly every aspect of potato growing. We work with the university programs, the potato board and we meet with specialists," Brandon commented. "We've made it a point to stay involved as long as we could. Sometimes it's probably too much," he added.
Brandon is a member of the Maine Potato Board and as a director of the Potato Marketing Association. Bruce has served on the city council of Presque Isle, the local school board and has actively advocated environmental issues as a Farm Bureau Director and in various other capacities.
In the press release announcing the Roope family's recent award, Tim Hobbs, director of Development & Grower Relations for the Maine Potato Board, said: "Bruce and Brandon have not only built a successful business but also have contributed greatly to the industry and community at large. They have served on local, state and national boards .and been heavily involved in local, state and national government, working on behalf of agricultural and all natural resources."
Family farms can still thrive in a changing economy. Brandon Roope predicts that farms will have to get bigger and better to meet the challenge but his family's farm has evolved quiet a bit in the generations it's been through. "Fifteen years ago you'd be hard pressed to find a thousand-acre farm in Maine," he said. "Now they're all over. Farms will get bigger. They may even be cooperate but they can still be family farms."