Smarter Farming Sustains Maine Potato Industry

Published online: Feb 28, 2022 Articles Paula Brewer
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Source: Fox 23

Even though Maine had a bumper crop of potatoes in 2021, it was still only a quarter of the yield Aroostook County farmers experienced at their peak in the 1940s and 1950s.

Potatoes have literally lost ground — acreage in Maine has declined from 186,000 acres in 1947 to 58,000 in 2021. Moneywise, that means the 1947 crop, worth $94.4 million then, would be worth $1.2 billion today. Maine’s potato crop for 2021 is valued at $209.7 million. Once No. 1, Maine ranks toward the bottom of a top-10 roster led by Idaho, Washington, Wisconsin and Oregon.

Idaho, which grows more than 300,000 acres, displaced Maine in 1957 as the top potato-producing state. But spuds are still Maine’s top agricultural product, with milk second and blueberries third.

In Aroostook County, long the hub for the state’s No. 1 crop, experts say the production shift west is due largely to advances in irrigation, more shipping connections and larger land area. But they are less concerned about Maine’s ranking than they are with growers focusing on technological advances to get the most out of the land they farm.

“We’re farming smarter. I would stack our growers up against growers in any other parts of the world. They’re that good,” said Steve Johnson, area crops specialist and potato educator at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension in Presque Isle, on Friday.

It’s not a matter of competing with other states, Dominic Lajoie of LaJoie Growers LLC in Van Buren, president of the National Potato Council, said Thursday.

“We all help each other at the national level. We focus on a lot of water issues, pesticide, trade — all those issues affect farms across the country,” Lajoie said. “We’re focused on marketing our potatoes regionally, rather than competing against each other.”

Both Lajoie and Johnson pointed out that while acreage may have decreased, yields per acre have increased steadily, due largely to the technology available. Improved methods for applying fertilizer, for instance, and use of more vigorous, younger-generation seed contribute to higher yields.

Crop rotation is another factor. The more years growers can rest the ground from potatoes, the more the land renews itself and becomes better when planted with potatoes again, LaJoie said.

When Maine grew 100,000 or more acres, there was a lot of marginal land — land that didn’t produce well, Johnson said Friday. Reducing the use of poorer growing land and using better soil has beefed up yield.

Years ago, the industry largely focused on tablestock, or fresh potatoes. Now, processing potatoes, used for french fries, chips and other products, comprise about 64 percent of an average crop, Don Flannery, executive director of the Maine Potato Board, said earlier this month.

That’s important, because processors demand certain things from potatoes. They look for consistent size, shape, color, moisture level and minimal to no bruising.

Major processors have forced growers to become better, Johnson said. Knowing they have to meet marketing targets means they harness every technological tool available.

For example, GPS can guide planting as well as pesticide and fertilizer application precisely, eliminating a lot of guesswork and wasted product. Improved temperature-controlled storage has meant that growers don’t lose potatoes due to ventilation issues or shrinkage because of excess humidity, he said.

The bottom line is that Maine has lost acreage but its focus on quality and improved methods keeps it relevant in the national market, experts said.

For LaJoie, a fourth-generation farmer, that means constantly learning the latest practices and technology to fit their crop to what the market needs. And though some people think farmers harm the environment, growers strive to protect and preserve it for future generations, he said.

“We’ve all learned that we’ve got to be real close to what we produce and make sure we sell it all. Growing too much is not good because it wastes the crop,” LaJoie said.

Maine’s niche is quality, Johnson said. Those who strive for quality standards have been successful.

“As to where we rank on the list, I guess I’m less concerned about that than a lot of people,” Johnson said. “We have people that want to farm and want to grow potatoes. That’s pretty much what I see as success.”