I am the USPB!

Meet Keith LaBrie of St. Agatha, Main

Published in the September 2011 Issue Published online: Sep 14, 2011 David Fairbourn
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LaBrie Farms, LLC, is one of the northeastern-most potato farms in the United States. Three generations of LaBries have been farming just north of St. Agatha, Maine, within view of the Canadian border. United States Potato Board member Keith LaBrie was born and raised here, lives in the home his Grandfather Louis settled in and farms with his brother Duane.

"We both finished college in 1989, returned to the farm and officially became growers. Dad helped us get established, giving us both ownership in the farm. He `retired' in Spring 2008, but is still involved with the day-to-day work. He provides his labor, guidance and experience, but is no longer financially committed to the farm. Duane and I are equal partners in LaBrie Farms, LLC."

Keith is in the first year of his second, consecutive three-year term as a USPB Board Member representing Maine. This is also his third year on the Administrative Committee, serving on the Industry Communications and Policy committee.


"Excellent Program"

When questioned about the most valuable tool or resource produced for the industry from the USPB, LaBrie explicitly responds it is the "Potatoes.Goodness Unearthed" campaign signature.

"This resource and the resulting nutrition campaign work has been an excellent program for growers and the industry," LaBrie says. "It has influenced consumers' attitudes about the potato's nutritional value. Actual consumption has improved significantly since the height of the low-carb diet trend back in 2003-2004.

"As growers we are seeing huge returns from this program to connect potatoes with consumers and tell them in a very fundamental way how potatoes are good for you. We make use of "Potatoes.Goodness Unearthed" in our packaging and point-of-sale materials whenever possible."


Varied Production

LaBrie Farms is predominantly a frozen process grower for McCain Foods, Ltd., but they also produce fresh potatoes. Russet Burbank and Russet Blazer are the varieties Keith and Duane grow for fry production, but they also grow Dark Red Norland and Yukon Gold for the table-stock market.

"About 60 percent of our production goes to McCain and 35 percent goes for table-stock," LaBrie explains. "We operate a packing shed that packs for local brokerage offices and also ships to re-packers in New England and Pennsylvania.

"We also do a little of our own seed production. We'll buy cultivars from the Maine Seed Potato Board and grow these out for our own commercial use. This gives us a little more control over the markets and our seed volume."

Canola, oats and barley are grown in rotation. The LaBries also plant clover in with some of their grain crops as a cover crop in each third year of rotation. This crop is tilled back into the soil as a green manure, adding organic matter to increase the soil's water-holding capacity.

Maine's planting season was particularly challenging this year. The spring was cold and wet, and rain delayed getting onto the fields. The LaBries struggled with wash-outs and some areas drowning in standing water.

"Maine has a characteristically short growing season," LaBrie said. "We generally plant the first or second week in May, and conclude harvest operations by the 10th of October.

"Our weather is fairly humid, with moderate temperatures, and this can occasionally create some challenges with late blight, but we benefit from sound advice and help from our local cooperative extension office in managing this.

Rainfall is pretty reliable during most years. Irrigation is generally just to supplement about two to four inches of water each year. Only about 15 percent of Maine acreage is irrigated, but growers strive to increase the development of water resources.

The climate in Maine is advantageous to potato production. Growers don't contend with extreme heat, and cool nighttime temperatures assist in crop development.

"We store everything and begin shipping our fresh potatoes beginning in November," LaBrie said. "We deliver on our processing contract beginning in February, and generally conclude shipping from our refrigerated storages in July. Marketing the previous year's crop on top of planning the next year's field operations means there is never a dull moment for us."

Both Keith and Duane are particularly grateful for the support and guidance from their parents in helping become established. LaBrie Farms is a true family farm. Keith's wife, Jocelyne, is responsible for coordinating harvest crews in the fall, helping in the packing shed and with seed cutting. His mother, Roberta, works as the bookkeeper, and his son, Jake, who just graduated high school, has become a valuable field worker. He will be leaving for college, but he, too, has expressed an interest in one day returning back to work the farm.

Market Development

The Maine potato industry consists of roughly 7,000 acres of fresh potatoes and 37,000 chip and processing potato acres, with the bulk of this going to McCain Foods and Frito-Lay and 11,000 acres for seed production. Maine has an excellent reputation for high-quality, low-virus seed and serves markets all along the east coast to Florida. In 2005, LaBrie was part of a delegation of growers, hosted by the Maine Potato Board, who traveled to Cuba to open up seed and table-stock markets. Maine is in a good position to serve this market if it opens and becomes established.

"Duane and I are particularly proud of our red potato program we've been developing over the past 10 years," LaBrie said. "Maine typically does not have a strong reputation with red potatoes, but we're working with different varieties and soil types, and starting to develop good markets.

"We're also lucky enough to be only a 12-hour trip by truck in order to provide overnight deliveries to about 35 million people in New England. We have a freight advantage to New York, New Jersey, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and can service these markets within a day and a half. We strive to ensure our highest-quality production is available in order to create repeat business. Each decision is focused on quality."


USPB's Role

LaBrie encourages all growers to consider becoming involved with the USPB when they have the chance. "This has given me the opportunity to meet and develop relationships with people throughout the industry," he says. "It has been an opportunity to gain a better understanding of what the USPB is and how this national marketing organization can be mutually beneficial and produce results for growers in every state and production region.

"Before I joined the USPB, I wasn't clear of what its true role was. The past three years have opened my eyes to the huge effort put in by this organization to continue to increase usage of U.S. potatoes and potato products, along with expanding our markets.

"The USPB is always looking to identify and open new markets and channels, internationally and domestically, as well as conducting consumer and market trend research in the hopes of providing consumers with new products, packaging and innovations.

"They do all of this without ever losing sight of the fact this is a grower-led, grower-funded board, continually striving to show a `Return on Investment' for the assessment dollars. We are dealing with the grower's monies and are always looking to get the biggest bang for our buck."