PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Representatives from McCain Foods are excited about a new project under way in Aroostook County that has some farmers planting their usual acreage of potatoes right on top of a bed of winter rye, barley or oats.
The “nurse crop” project is underway in 10 to 12 spots in The County, Brianne O’Leary, senior field representative for McCain Food said during a recent interview.
The planting project is part of the Drive for 45, which is a potato industry initiative in Maine and New Brunswick aimed at increasing potato yields by 45 hundredweight per acre over several years to compete with growers from western states where yields can be twice what they are in the East.
The nurse crop idea was visualized and tried first in Grand Falls, New Brunswick, by McCain Agronomist Gilles Moreau.
The process works by first spreading the winter rye, or other selected nurse crop, over a potato field just before the potatoes are planted. The winter rye establishes quickly, according to O’Leary, germinating in about five to six days. That crop then grows for about three weeks, she said, protecting the soil from erosion during rainy periods. When growers start to cultivate their potato crop, the rye gets incorporated back into the soil.
During Moreau’s first year of the nurse crop trial, O’Leary said, he saw a significant yield increase on his half acre plot. After the success Moreau experienced, McCain Foods greenlit the project for growers to try on both sides of the border.
In all, about 10 growers from Maine and seven growers from New Brunswick decided to seed a nurse crop along with their potato crop on a trial plot on their own farms this year, O’Leary said. One of the biggest benefits of doing so is soil conservation.
“The recommended nurse crop is winter rye because it germinates quickly, will grow in a variety of conditions, and is shallow rooted, so as not to compete with the potato crop for nutrients,” she said. “Maine growers planted 150 acres, and New Brunswick growers planted 250 acres.”
She said that after potatoes are planted, the soil normally would be bare for three to four weeks until the potato plants emerge. The nurse crop, however, protects the vital soil during that period by minimizing surface runoff of rain. A second goal, according to O’Leary, is to create additional organic matter through the rye shoots and roots that are mixed into the top layer of the soil at the time the potatoes emerge.
Matt Porter of Porter Farms in Presque Isle said that on his sixth generation farm where he works with his father and where he himself has farmed for 15 years, he grew winter rye on some of his 900 acres of potatoes.
“It went well,” he said. “We planted the crop, and I walked away from it, and when I came back the field was very green,” he said. “It was just the data from New Brunswick that really convinced us to give it a try. It just seemed to make sense, and it really fit our farm. If it is a success, it is something we will do again next year.”
O’Leary noted that most growers are using winter rye for their nurse crop, but one grower chose barley and two chose oats.
For now, the senior field representative for McCain Foods said that the company will continue to study the project and if yield results continue to be positive, they anticipate that other growers will quickly adopt the practice on their own farms.