Maine Potatoes Break into New Markets after Record Harvest

Published online: Feb 07, 2022 Articles Paula Brewer
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Source: Bangor Daily News

Maine potato growers have dealt with storage and shipping difficulties having pulled a record harvest from the ground, but the bumper crop also means more spuds are going to markets across the country and into Canada.

The state’s farmers planted more potatoes this year — more than 58,000 acres, compared with 51,000 the past two years — and also harvested 168,000 tons more than usual.

But where all those spuds go has a direct impact on Aroostook County’s and Maine’s economy.

Maine’s potato industry produces sales of $540 million, employs 6,150 and brings $233 million in income to the state annually, according to a report by The Maine Monitor and Aroostook County Tourism. Most of the crop stays in Maine to be used by processors, which include three in The County, while the rest brings in sales from seed potatoes and fresh markets along the East Coast, to Canada and even points out West.

Fresh markets include grocery stores, restaurants and special events such as the Eastern States Exposition, held in Springfield, Massachusetts, each fall. The Maine Potato Board sells around 78,000 baked potatoes during the fair’s 17-day run, Executive Director Don Flannery said.

“We go through, in a normal year, roughly two trailer loads of potatoes through the course of the fair. Our daily sales would be about 4,600 potatoes — 360 an hour,” he said, adding it’s quite impressive to see the long lines of people waiting at the door at 10 a.m. to buy baked potatoes.

A trailer load of potatoes is about 44,000 pounds, which means the board sells approximately 88,000 pounds of spuds at the Big E.

Potatoes also have been a star attraction in Bangor during high school basketball tournament season. Some restaurants and the Cross Insurance Center have made Caribou Russets available for consumers.

This year, tourneygoers won’t find the potatoes at the Cross Center. Ryan LaRochelle, executive chef and director of food and beverage at the center, said potatoes will not be on the menu, largely because they’ve featured them for a few years now and people are always seeking newer food items.

Most of Maine’s fresh potatoes go to Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, Flannery said. About 9% stay in Maine, and other shipments go to all over the Eastern Seaboard, as well as Ohio, Illinois, Georgia, Arkansas, Texas and California, according to a Maine Potato Board industry report.

But the largest share of the crop by far — about 64 percent — will become french fries, potato chips, mashed potatoes and other products from processors such as Penobscot McCrum in Washburn, McCain Foods in Easton, Pineland Farms in Mars Hill and New Gloucester, and Frito-Lay, Flannery said.

Since December, LaJoie Growers of Van Buren has sent more than 3,200 tons to processors in Pasco, Washington.

Seed potatoes comprise about 21% of the crop’s use, which this year will mean around 224,000 tons bought for planting by agricultural producers.

“Everything comes from a seed at some point in time. Maine is one of the largest suppliers of seed potatoes,” Flannery said.

Traditionally, Florida has been Maine’s premier destination for seed potatoes, and then New York, North Carolina and Canada, he said. This year, LaJoie Growers is also shipping seed to Idaho and Washington. Potato board data list other top seed destinations as Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Maryland and New Jersey.

Potatoes still top Maine’s agricultural production, and in 2020 were valued at $152 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. Milk was second at $115 million, and blueberries third at $57 million.

As far as the most prominently grown variety, the Russet Burbank tops the list. Different potatoes are grown for different purposes, Flannery said, and though they change over the years, the Russet Burbank has been consistently at the top.