HOULTON, Maine — The Fitzpatrick family of Houlton, Maine, has been named the 2014 Farm Family of the Year by the Maine Potato Board.
Albert Fitzpatrick and his family grow 300 acres of potatoes in southern Aroostook County while focusing on the health and sustainability of the soil on their farms, according to a Potato Board press release issued Friday.
Although Mary Beth Fitzpatrick has worked off the farm for most of her professional life, she has always been a part of the farm operation and helps when needed. All four of the Fitzpatrick daughters—Tracy, Erica, Aimee and Kendall—have always worked during the harvest.
Erica Fitzpatrick Peabody studied agriculture in college and is involved in the farm from a technical aspect. Her husband, Barrett Peabody, a potato seed inspector, comes from a farm family that retired from farming in the 1990s. Recently, the Fitzpatricks incorporated four of the Peabody family farms into their operation to allow for better rotation.
The family’s connection to the land also runs deeper.
“My grandmother, Kathryn Fitzpatrick, still visits the fields during planting and harvest and makes sure that the crew gets treats,” said Erica Fitzpatrick Peabody. “My grandfather, Robert Callnan, worked harvest for many years, and we have farmed his home farm for more than 25 years.”
Albert Fitzpatrick, a native of Houlton, first bought an old truck for $2,500 and did some trucking for a while after attending the then-Northern Maine VTI in Presque Isle in the mid-1960s. He still operates New England Transportation and has trucks on the road.
But he also rented his first farm, bought a $500 sprayer and a $400 truck, and in 1973 grew 100 acres. He’s gradually added to his acreage since.
To keep the soil healthy, the Fitzpatricks have established an elaborate rotation schedule involving a variety of cover plants and grain and grass mixtures. They also build and rehabilitate waterways for erosion control, and they mulch a cover crop of hay on the soil after potato harvest to provide a cover during the winter months.
The Fitzpatricks sell potatoes for processing to McCain’s (as part of the Littleton Potato Growers cooperative), Frito-Lay and Naturally Potatoes. They also grow some fresh market varieties for sale in New England.
Erica Fitzpatrick Peabody, who has a bachelor’s degree in horticulture and a master’s degree in plant pathology from the University of Maine, is a published scientist and for nearly 10 years has been the agronomist at McCain’s in Easton.
She applies her agronomy skills on the family farm, working with her father to determine optimal fertilizer analyses, new productive varieties to grow and different chemistries for pest control. She and her husband built a home on the family farm and live there with their two children, Aimee and Barrett R. They are expecting another child this fall.
“I love growing things,” said Erica Fitzpatrick Peabody. “Farming involves making both business and science-based decisions. A potato farm family must be well versed in both business skills and science knowledge to make good decisions for their farm.”
“I don’t take credit for this,” Albert Fitzpatrick said of the Farm Family of the Year award. “You’re only as good as your family around you and your good help on the farm.”
He has employees who have worked with him for years, including one for 33 years and another for 36.
“Whether the farm or the trucking business, family and good help make all the difference,” he said. “I’ve been lucky.”
When asked what advice he would give to the next generation, Fitzpatrick said, “If you really want something, really want to be a grower, go for it. Be aware that there are risks in farming, both mental and financial. But if you like what you do, it makes all the difference.”