Meet Steve Whited of Bridgewater, Maien

Published in the December 2009 Issue Published online: Dec 16, 2009 David Fairbourn
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"Farming is all I've ever known," says Steven Whited, a fifth-generation seed grower and USPB Administrative Committee member from Bridgewater, Maine. Whited Farms was established in 1854 when his great-great-grandfather Frederic Whited bought the farm, which is just a few miles west of the United States/Canadian border with New Brunswick.

It's quite possible Whited Farms is the easternmost seed farm in the entire United States.

"This farm has always been a seed farm-at least as long as I can remember," Whited said. "This region of Aroostook County is quite isolated. Where we're located in our valley, there is only a narrow neck of arable land about a mile or so wide, so it is very conducive to seed production.

"My wife, Joy, does the farm's accounting/bookkeeping. I farm with my son, Fred. My daughter, Erin, teaches school in the nearby town of Houlton. My father, Robert, is retired from the farm and likes to spend his time fishing unless I need the extra help during planting or harvest."

Katahdin, Kennebec and Cobbler are the varieties Whited recalls that were in production on the farm during his youth. Today, with large processors like McCain's coming to the area, Russet Burbank is their predominant variety.

Frito-Lay also plays a big part in the county's potato production, A third of Whited Farms' production is Frito-Lay varieties marketed through the Aroostook Seed Association. This association is a group of four seed growers who pool only their Frito-Lay seed production together in order to supply economically scaled seed quantities to Frito-Lay. "Our farms are also spread out in order to minimize production risks associated with weather problems," Whited said.

Russet varieties are grown for local farms as well as yellow seed varieties for commercial table-stock production. Whited Farms also produces Atlantic, Snowden and Beacon Chipper and Russet Burbank seed for County Super Spuds-eight miles up the road in Mars Hill, Maine.

Whited Farms plants nuclear seed, which comes from the State of Maine Porter Seed Farm. G2 stock comes from this farm, while Frito-Lay seed stock is received from Berce Farms, Inc., a Frito-Lay grower. "This is a real nice family farm operation growing mini tubers, and it's a pleasure to do business with them," Whited said.


Short Season

The growing season is from May 15 to October 10. The only rotation crops at Whited Farms are small grains like barley and oats. Fields are prepared in the fall due to the short growing season. In the spring, fields are harrowed as soon as they dry out. "By the time the last load goes out the cellar doors, we're getting on the ground and planting the next crop," Whited said. "For 2009, it had been a very wet year until about August when things dried right up. Our average rainfall is 40 inches per year. Unlike the West, we can't control our climate with modern irrigation. In Maine, we don't get to turn our water on or off."

According to Whited, the Colorado potato beetle is starting to come back, and it seems to be building up immunities to some of the crop protection products. Aphids also seem to be present in the summer, but with spray programs, the fields remain fairly disease free. The University of Maine Extension Service is very good at monitoring and reporting through an aphid graphing program. Whited works closely with the extension service for recommendations of when, where and how to treat fields.

Cold winter temperatures and isolation help to control potato pests as well as freezing any volunteers. "This is one reason why Maine potato seed is so healthy and vigorous," said Whited. "Maine has a long and rich history in potato production, and we've learned through many generations and years of experience how to deal with challenges while recognizing and creating opportunities for our industry."


National View

Whited is serving his sixth year as a board member on the USPB. Before joining, he knew very little about this organization.

"The USPB has come a long way with communicating with growers," he said. "Pick up any industry magazine or paper, and you can see the message is getting across.

"When I first became a USPB board member and had the opportunity to travel to other growing regions and meet fellow growers, it opened my eyes. These opportunities improve your outlook on the industry. You gain ideas and insights and see opportunities in marketing and how to improve and pursue different markets. As board members, we are able to pass on our learnings to our own state organizations and to our fellow growers."

Whited has served two years on the USPB Administrative Committee for International Marketing. During late July 2009, Whited participated in hosting growers and importers from Brazil during a USPB Seed Potato Reverse Trade Mission (RTM) to Maine.

"The potential is good for U.S. seed growers to begin exporting potato seed to Brazil, but the United States and Brazil will need to work out some differences on logistics and phytosanitary issues," he said. "The Brazilians are extremely interested in seed from the United States. In the last five years, the frozen and chipping process industries in Brazil has increased 200 percent.

Whited also speaks favorably regarding the establishment of Potato Expo, the largest conference and tradeshow for the North American potato industry. "Potato Expo has the potential of informing and unifying growers and industry members from each U.S. growing region," he said. "Speaking on behalf of Maine growers, we value learning new advances in marketing and technology."

Whited values the work and experiences he has been a part of on a national level. For him, it has been a privilege to take part in the planning and development of the national potato industry for future generations.

"The USPB is working in the interest of each grower," he says. "They effectively manage their grower funded budget, working hard for the grower's best interest in developing and providing the best industry marketing tools."