Greener on Both Sides

Green Thumb Farms of Fryeburg, Maine

Published online: Dec 27, 2017 Grower of the Month Tyrell Marchant, Editor
Viewed 3549 time(s)

This article appears in the January 2018 issue of Potato Grower.

Don Thibodeau is not the kind of guy who gets annoyed easily. He is at peace with life, no matter what comes.

“It doesn’t matter what you do, you can’t control it,” he says in reference to the weather, but you get the feeling talking to him that that is his attitude toward pretty much everything that might not go his way. He has worked hard to determine the direction his life has taken, but he certainly doesn’t stay up nights fretting about fate’s fickle tendencies. Perhaps that attitude is what has driven the success of his career as a farmer. Thibodeau laughs even when recounting memories of tough times and challenges that might elicit melancholy in others.

To be fair, the Thibodeau family’s Green Thumb Farms is certainly not something to be sad about. The farm’s 2,600 acres straddle the Maine-New Hampshire state line in the fertile, sandy loam river bottom of the Saco River Valley. Some 125 miles due north of Boston, the farm doesn’t have far to ship its goods to the population centers of the East Coast.   

Thibodeau grew up in Presque Isle, Maine, more than 300 miles north of Green Thumb Farms’ present-day location, where his father owned and operated Maine Farmers Exchange, which facilitated sales for several potato growers. He enjoyed his childhood there, but as a young man he had no intention of returning to the farm. He had found some success as young a ski racer and harbored dreams of moving west and entering the skiing business. Farming as a career, Thibodeau says, couldn’t have been further from his mind.

His father had partnered with friend Tim Thompson in 1965 to buy the original 150 acres near Fryeburg, Maine, that became Green Thumb Farms. Thompson passed away in 1973, and Thiboeau, who had been attending the University of Maine, spent the summer of 1974 selling potatoes for his father. That summer did it. For perhaps the first time in his life, Thibodeau fell in love with the potato industry. In 1977, he and his wife Brenda moved down to the Fryeburg and took over operation of the farm.

Today, Green Thumb Farms harvests about 765 acres of table-stock potatoes, 1,100 acres of feed corn, 150 acres of sod, and between 50 and 300 acres of dry beans every year. Potatoes are sold out of their own packing shed, and everything is sold out of their own sales office.

One challenge the farm faces constantly is that of getting the right amount of water to the right places. While annual rainfall is more than adequate, it can at times prove overwhelming. Some of Thibodeau’s fields are prone to flooding, a hardship only his turfgrass, among all his crops, is equipped to withstand. There are times, however, when water needs to be pumped to the crops.

“It’s challenging to make sure you have irrigation when you need it, but justifying it when you don’t use it every week,” Thibodeau says. “You can put an inch of water down today and get three inches of rain two days later; that’s too much. It’s a challenge trying to guess Mother Nature.”

In 2003, at the height of the Atkins diet’s powers, Thibodeau decided he needed to re-think how he made profits off his potatoes. One day, he was discussing the pinch his potato business was facing with his brother Lee, and the two came up with a novel idea: For years, they had been selling their No. 2s as livestock feed at very low prices.  Why not produce vodka with their “reject” potatoes? After a little research, they took the dive and founded Maine Distilleries, makers of Cold River vodka. It hasn’t been as simple or straightforward as Thibodeau originally thought it would be, but the distillery has proven to be a very successful venture, with its vodka now sold in 17 states from New England to the Rocky Mountains.

“The alcohol business is certainly not for the faint-hearted,” he says. “But neither is potato farming. I’d say potatoes give you that bull-headedness that makes you not quit, and that’s what has made the distillery business succeed. Let me tell you, it’s not at all like people think.”

Through it all, Thibodeau says the people around him have been the key ingredient to Green Thumb’s prosperity. Many of those people have been family. Thibodeau and his wife Brenda have two grown children, a son and a daughter, both of whom have come back with their spouses and are raising their families on the farm.

“They’re very young, but boy, do they enjoy the farm,” Thibodeau—with obvious pride—says of his four grandchildren. “There’s no better place to be a kid than on a farm. I watch them with their dads, doing everything from carpentry to driving a tractor, and it’s fantastic.

“I’ve had a great partner in my Brenda,” he continues. “She’s been here for the good years and the bad years. In any business, you can have all the tools, all the shiny stuff, all the land, but if the people aren’t right, nothing’s right.”

Green Thumb Farms has certainly had the right people. Everything else may not be perfect, but Don Thibodeau wouldn’t trade it for the world.