The Fire Station

Published online: Feb 06, 2020 Articles Tyrell Marchant, Editor
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This article appears in the January 2020 issue of Potato Grower.

Crack open a history book, and you’ll find that 1914 was an eventful year for this old world. Much of Europe and West Africa had erupted into what would come to be called World War I. Mexico was in the midst of a revolution. Ernest Shackleton and his crew had set sail in an ultimately failed but still-fascinating attempt to find a water passage across Antarctica.

And in the northeast corner of the United States, a farm was purchased by a collective of potato growers—with funds authorized by the state legislature for the University of Maine to use for the purpose—to conduct research on soil, climate and cropping practices. Over the last century-plus, much has been accomplished on that plot of land that has brought the entire North American potato industry into the future, while remaining steadfastly focused on the growers, processors and wholesalers of Maine.

“That was our mission 105 years ago,” says Randy Smith, who has served as superintendent of Aroostook Farm since 2001, “and our mission is still, first and foremost, to serve the Maine potato industry.”

In its early days, the farm was home to grain and potato experiments. Early research focused on tillage practices, such as the respective advantages of high-ridge and shallow planting of potatoes. Work soon spread to fertilizers, including experiments comparing sulfate of ammonia and nitrate of soda as nitrogen sources, and experimenting with different methods of application. When the outbreak of World War I cut off German and Chilean sources of potash, researchers at Aroostook Farm began experimenting with alternatives such as seaweed, manure, wood ash and gypsum.

A lot has changed since those early days, and research at Aroostook Farm has become an ever-evolving attempt to emphasize what growers in the state need most at any particular juncture.

At 425 acres sitting just outside of Presque Isle, Maine, Aroostook Farm today is the largest of five experimental farms operated by the University of Maine. A potato storage research facility and 2,800-square-foot greenhouse are the crown jewels of the property, ensuring year-round research capabilities.

Potato breeding has been a priority at the facility since the beginning, and it has earned a reputation as a hotbed for developing cultivars that have gone on to significantly impact the industry: Atlantic, Kennebec, Katahdin and Sebago can trace their roots back to northeastern Maine. In recent years, Aroostook Farm-bred Pinto Gold and Caribou Russet have been released and shown great promise in the market.

Aroostook Farm is owned and administered solely by the University of Maine, but that doesn’t preclude other bright minds in the potato world from using it as a base for their own research. University of Maine Cooperative Extension uses the farm for applied research and outreach programs and as the base for a potato pest scouting program. Scientists from the USDA and private industry routinely conduct research at the farm, and the Aroostook Farm staff regularly collaborates on potato research with the USDA-ARS New England Plant, Soil and Water Laboratory. Ag students from the nearby University of Maine at Presque Isle campus are a common sight. More than a few visiting researchers from Europe, South America and Asia have made Aroostook Farm their temporary base of operations over the years. 

“I’ve only been here 18 years,” says Smith (as if 18 years with one employer is a mere trifle), “but I don’t think the farm’s mission has changed much—provide input that helps make the potato crop in Maine the best it can be.”

The impetus for much of the research undertaken at Aroostook Farm comes from the grower-operated Maine Potato Board. Smith says that while Extension is typically “on the front lines as problems emerge” and takes a proactive approach, his farm’s role is more typically geared more toward mitigating issues with which growers are already grappling. For example, late blight and Dickeya studies are top-of-mind now, as growers in the Northeast continue to contend with those two diseases. When Smith first took the job, potato mop-top virus was a primary concern for growers and, therefore, for him.

“Quite often,” says Smith, “our mission is static; we don’t get to make decisions as to what we work on. It depends on which emergency is happening at a particular time. We like to be proactive, but our primary objective here is making sure industry fires are put out as quickly as possible.”

For more than a century, Aroostook Farm has boasted some of the best firefighters the potato industry has had to offer. And you have to believe that with each fire put out, at least a dozen more have been prevented.

 

To learn more about the University of Maine’s Aroostook Farm, visit www.umaine.edu/aroostookfarm.