Tuesday October 08, 2013 | 08:57 AM

Tate McPherson standing in a potato field.

Miles of potato fields fly by as one drives from just north of Houlton to Ashland, Maine, a journey interrupted only by an occasional farm and the town of Presque Isle. Ashland is in the middle of Aroostook County, otherwise referred to as ‘The County’ or potato country. The family farms here are much larger than those in Southern Maine. This is as close to modern industrial farming as one will find in New England.

According to farmer Tate McPherson, Owner of the Maine Seed Company, LLC., the number of farms along state road Route 27 between Presque Isle and Ashland has dropped from 22 in 1993 to five in 2013. Over the same period, the average size potato farm has increased from 150 to 300 acres to an average minimum of 500. “Given the cost of equipment, farmers have to maintain a certain size,” said McPherson.

The families in Aroostook County have deep ties to the land and their survival is essential, not just to Maine, but to the preservation of family farming in this country. McPherson said “Field roads run through our blood.” What he means is in Aroostook County the farmers get done what needs to be done to keep their family farms in business.

Every day consumers make the choice, which either encourages the success of family farms or one of industrial operations. A primary reason for the decline in the number of potato farms can be traced to the 1970s when the fresh market began to shrink with the expansion of fast food outlets and the movement of women into the labor force, which led to the change in how food was prepared in the home.

According to the Maine Potato Board, the potato is the second most consumed food in the United States. Without potatoes is there a point to gravy, and who wants sour cream, chives, and bacon alone in a bowl? An average American eats 135 pounds of potatoes a year, which is equal to about a one potato per day average. Approximately 1/3 of those potatoes are processed.

Tim Hobbs, Director of Development and Grower Relations for the Maine Potato Board, believes Maine is currently ranked sixth in the number of harvested acres of potatoes, fluctuating between fifth and seventh depending on what is going on any particular year. In the 1940s it was ranked first.

Potatoes are the number one commodity in the State of Maine and was number one in New England for agricultural receipts (*with the government shutdown USDA sites were not accessible to confirm how current this information is). The annual total impact of the potato industry on Maine’s economy is in excess of $540 million in sales, 6,100 jobs, over $230 million in personal income, and over $32 million in state and local taxes.

Of the potatoes grown in Maine, 90% come from Aroostook County (the remaining 10% are grown in Central Maine and Fryeburg). Approximately 45% goes to McCain Foods for french fry processing, 20% to Frito Lay for potato chips, 10% for fresh market, and 25% for seed.

The Russet Burbank is the most commonly grown potato in Maine. Frito Lay varieties do not have names and are referred to as FL followed by a four digit number.

A windrower digs potatoes and sets them aside.

Farmer Matt Porter's three row harvester, which he designed with Spudnik, straddles three rows, picking up potatoes and putting them in the truck.

Seed Breeding
This year, the Maine Seed Potato Board run Porter Seed Farm in Masardis, Maine grew 46 varieties of potatoes including Adirondack Blue, Adirondack Red, Purple Peruvian, and French Fingerling. In operation since 1947, the State of Maine turned over the farm to the Maine Potato Board in 2009 when budget cuts made it impossible for the state to continue managing it. The facility is equipped with tissue culture production, disease testing laboratories, seed storages with climate control systems, greenhouses, and an irrigation system, to support the production of nuclear http://www1.agric.gov.ab.ca/$department/deptdocs.nsf/all/opp9642 and foundation seed (the descendant of nuclear seed).

Commercial potato growers used seed potatoes to grow potatoes. The use of high-quality (certified) seed is important for the production of a profitable potato crop. In Maine, most of the certified seed sold is N4 (Nuclear 4 seed), and occasionally G1 (Generation 1 seed which is five generations out from the mother plant that was grown in a lab or greenhouse from disease-tested parental stock).

According to Hobbs, the University of Maine’s Potato Breeding Program is on the brink of releasing seed for new potato varieties to the public. These new varieties will have royalties. While this will be new in Maine, seed breeding programs run by universities, which partner with organizations (e.g. in this case the Maine Seed Potato Board) have been collecting royalties for a few years to help fund the breeding program. Farmers are willing to pay for university seed (vs. seed grown by commercial farmers), because of the genetics. The objective of the program’s research is to develop and select new potato varieties, which will provide opportunities to the Maine Potato Industry. The Maine breeding program is the only eastern U.S. program with an emphasis on russets and long-whites with processing and fresh market potential.

The Soil
According to Darol Wilson, District Conservationist Presque Isle Field Office USDA, Aroostook has 150,000 acres of cropland, which is usually 1/3 potatoes, 1/3 grain, and the other 1/3 split between clover and broccoli, depending on the rotation. It is not uncommon to find a farmer in Aroostook growing 500 acres of potatoes and 700 acres of oats and barley or clover.

The County’s nutrient rich Caribou soil and climate (warm days and cool nights) offer the ideal growing conditions for growing potatoes. According to Andrew Plant, Assistant Professor Agriculture Education University of Maine Cooperative Extension, Caribou series soils consist of deep, well-drained, friable, medium textured soils that have a firm gravelly loam subsoil. These soils have developed from calcareous glacial till derived from limestone and shale, and are generally three to five feet deep over the underlying bedrock.

According to McPherson, after potatoes are harvested over 95% of potato growers leave the ground fallow until spring when it will be turned and replanted to grain underseeded either with clover (for farmers who use a two year rotation) or rye grass (for those who plow and go back to potatoes the following year). “We call this either a three year rotation, meaning two years alternate crops before potatoes again on the 3rd year, or a one to one rotation which is one year potatoes, one year grains, then back to potatoes,” said McPherson. “Most growers would rather use the 3 year rotation, but it depends on their access to land if they can do it.”

Crop rotation, in particular regards to potato production aids in the maintenance of the County’s soil health. “Grains add diversity of plant life and also provide much needed organic matter to our potato soils,” said Plant. “Potatoes, due to the way they are produced can be hard on soils, as the crop is tillage intensive (depleting organic matter), and don't return much in the way of crop organic matter after they are harvested (not much for crop debris left to turn back into the soil).”

Agricultural Research Service plant pathologist Bob Larkin and others at the USDA’s New England Plant, Soil and Water Research Lab at the University of Maine in Orono, Maine, have been evaluating how cover crops, rotation schedules, soil amendments and irrigation affect potato crop production and yield. 

“The more residue (previous crop stems) is returned to the soil, the higher the organic matter,” said Wilson. “It is a direct comparison proven over many years of research. Decomposition is the key to the process as the soil breaks down the residue and converts it into organic matter. Organic matter is the glue the binds the soil particles and nutrients together for a healthy soil.”

Wood Prairie Farm, an organic certified farm in Aroostook run by Jim Gerritsen and his family, offers the Maine Potato of the Month Sampler.  Each month, customers receive three varieties in an eight-pound box. The Sampler comes with information describing the potatoes and a recipe booklet.

To avoid the growth of eyes (green sprouts), potatoes should be stored in paper bags, cardboard boxes, or a basket in a dark, cool, dry environment with good ventilation (basement, dark corner of kitchen…). An ideal temperature for storage would be between 45 and 55 degrees.

When things go well Matt will dig 40,000 lbs every 6-8 minutes. In an ideal situation he wants to dig 2 million potatoes a day.

Nutritional information
One medium potato (8 ounces) with skin has 26 grams of carbohydrates, 4 grams of fiber, 3 grams of protein, 27 milligrams of Vitamin C, and 620 milligrams of potassium. (*with the government shutdown USDA sites were not accessible to confirm recommended daily dietary guidelines).

Fresh potatoes are available year-round in the produce section of most supermarkets. The following crowd-pleasing recipe for Potato Scallop comes from Felicia Buck, who “The Root” will be profiling in tomorrow’s post. Felicia is married to Brent Buck, a 3rd generation potato farmer. They live in Mapleton in the heart of Maine’s potato country.

Felicia Buck’s Potato Scallop
1 – 10 ½ oz. can condensed cream of Celery Soup
½ cup milk
Dash of parsley
4 medium potatoes thinly sliced
1 small onion thinly sliced
1 TBS. butter
Salt, Pepper and paprika
½ of 6 oz. container of French’s French Fried onions (original or cheddar)

Combine soup, milk, and parsley in small bowl. In 1 ½ quart casserole dish arrange half of potatoes, onions and sauce in layers and then do the same with the other half of potatoes, onions and sauce. Dot top of casserole with butter, salt, pepper and paprika. Cover and bake at 375 degrees for 1 hour. Uncover and sprinkle with French Fried Onions and cook for another 5 minutes. Enjoy!

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About the Author

Sharon Kitchens is a neo-homesteader learning the ins and outs of country living by luck and pluck and a lot of expert advice. She writes about bees for The Huffington Post and stuff she loves on her personal blog, deliciousmusings.com.

When she is not writing, she enjoys edible gardening, reading books on food and/or thinking about food, hanging out by her beehives and patiently tracking down her chickens in the woods behind her old farmhouse.

In her blog, Sharon profiles farm families, reports on farm-based education and internships, conducts Q&A's with master beekeepers, offers tips on picking a CSA, and much more.

Sharon can be contacted at kitchens.sharon@gmail.com or on Twitter @deliciousmusing.

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