Grower of the Month: 60 Miles

Published in the July 2009 Issue Published online: Jul 05, 2009 Nancy I. Sanchez
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60 milesAbout 60 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, potatoes are growing in fields tended by Steve Crane near Exeter, Maine. Steve and cousin, Jim Crane, are carrying on an agricultural tradition that began in the 1950s by their grandfather.

Steve Crane's interest in farming began as a youngster. At the time his grandfather farmed it, it was a small operation producing beans, potatoes and corn. Crane's father and uncle took over the farming operation in the early 1960s, and that is when it developed into a business called Crane Brothers.

Today, Steve and wife, Becky, along with Jim and his wife, Brenda, farm 2,500 acres with 1,300 acres in potatoes and rotations include oats and corn. "We have hundreds of fields. It is a lot more work because we are spread out in quite a large area. The biggest field is 70 acres," said Steve.

Crane Brothers has two operations with the newest location 90 miles away from the home base. "At the distant location, 340 acres, we grow and ship directly to the plant. We are contracted 100 percent with Frito-Lay."

Steve says they added the distant area to the farm business because the ground has considerably less stones in the field. It sits next to the Androscoggin River, where the soil is sandy and more favorable to potato production.

Harvested potatoes at the home base location go directly into storage. Because they contract with Frito-Lay, the Crane growers use special varieties developed by Frito-Lay for their growers.

Steve says, "We are one of their variety research trial stations. We get to screen the variety, raw grades and fry samples on our farm. We bag some of the tubers and ship them to the testing labs. We then get first dibs on choosing the new varieties coming along. We have a year or two advantage on the new ones. Right now we are using a variety that allows the potatoes to stay in storage longer."

Frito-Lay has a gathering each year in November for the eight farming operations located throughout the nation involved in growing the new variety trials. They meet and discuss the new varieties. Steve says it is a great thing for the seed growers who produce seed just for the contracted growers for Frito-Lay.

PLANTING AND HARVEST

In Maine the Crane growers typically begin planting May 1. Depending on if the weather cooperates, it could be earlier or later.

They begin harvesting the fresh crop the second week in August and run usually until the middle of October.

"As we get orders, we dig and load. Depending on when and how much the plant wants we go get them," he says.

Harvest for storage crop starts September 15 and goes for three weeks.

Challenges in farming are numerous and varied; however, at the Crane farm one of the typical challenges has been in finding enough labor.

"Now we have people handing in resumes who are over-qualified. A lot of sawmills and paper-mills have been shutting down and a lot of people are out of work. This past year and probably this year it won't be an issue for us to find employees." The Cranes do not use migrant labor as they get a lot of retired people who want to help out.

Irrigating the farmland has changed from using traveling guns to 12 or more pivots. "Our irrigation is supplemental because we have a fair amount of natural rainfall. We have man-made ponds where we pump from. In the fresh-pack farm we draw water from the river to irrigate."

INDUSTRY INVOLVEMENT

Starting in 2000, Steve began serving on the National Potato Council on the board of directors. Last year he was vice president of grower and public relations and this year he is the vice president for the finance committee.

"The finances look real good right now, and the expo earlier this year in San Antonio was a real success. It was a good move to consolidate those meetings as it helped with the bottom line. Having a large attendance at the meetings was a real good sign.

"I really enjoyed it, I think it should have happened 10 years ago. It also allowed us to have a bigger trade show and more exhibits. It is expected to be even bigger this next year."

Serving on the local school board since 1996 has taken a lot of Steve's time as well. He is a dedicated community member as his involvement in bringing a huge project come to light shows his tenacity.

This dedication is also apparent in his work ethic. Taking care of a farm that is spread out with hundreds of fields takes extra work and creative organizational skills. "It is more difficult in this area just dealing with the nature of how spread out our fields are. In our storage area we are 20 miles from one farm to the other, we have fields all over and in-between. It makes things tough to be efficient."

Another huge challenge is distances. "Because the nearest potato equipment dealership is 180 miles away we have to be self-sufficient and able to fix anything that goes wrong in addition to having all the parts on hand for anything that may go wrong."

The nearest tractor dealership is 60 miles away. In central Maine, where the Crane Brothers farm, there are only 3,000 to 4,000 acres in potatoes. "We are kind of isolated and that may be one reason why we don't get late blight."

GETTING BUGGED

The Colorado Potato Beetle is a major issue. To combat that pest they use seed treatment products. However, they are showing some signs of resistance. They still use them but are only getting through half the season with those products.

At Crane Brothers farm, the tendency to be a leader in trying new things is evident.

Steve says he likes to try new things, and yet he is also learning to be more cautious and wise these days.

Looking to the future of potato production Steve is very ambitious in believing in a strong outlook.

"This country must eat," he says. "And potatoes make up a huge part of that prospect. We must educate the public as to where their food comes from."

He believes there is a total disconnect as to where consumers believe their food comes from. "It is really something that needs to be worked on. The USPB advertises, but most people just don't realize how important agriculture is to the nation."

Farming in Maine is something Steve enjoys a great deal. "We have always tried to make our operation one to look up to. We try to keep things neat and clean, it is an important aspect to operate at a professional manner.

Philosophizing on his personal thoughts, Steve reflects on why he is so fond of farming.

"When you dig that last potato or harvest that last row of corn it looks real good and feels even better. Then when April comes around after a long winter rest we can't wait to go out and do it all over again. We are always ready to dive into it once more."

He adds, "I enjoy seeing the crops grow. I like to try different things every year and to raise a family on the farm gives them a good work ethic."

The Crane Brothers family farm demonstrates strong principles and professional work ethics as they pass these standards onto their future generations of Americans in agriculture.

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