Don Flannery, right, speaks to a member of the Maine Potato Board in in a meeting Wednesday. Credit: David Marino Jr. | BDN

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Maine Potato Board plant pathologist and lab manager Andrew Plant said during a meeting Wednesday that the 2019-20 results of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry’s annual post-harvest test was the worst since 2012-13.

Plant said that 7.3 percent of all seed potato lots were rejected because of the presence of viruses within the crop, such as potato leafroll virus, which can decrease yield, as well as potato virus Y, which can cause rot or affect sprouting.

It was nearly 70 percent higher than the 2018-19 season’s number of 4.4 percent, and the worst since 10.7 percent rejected in 2012-13. 

Plant said that for a lot of seed potatoes to be rejected, more than 5 percent of the sample needs to test positive for pathogens. He said about 700 acres of seed potatoes met that threshold. 

“Acre-wise, our rejections just about doubled since last year,” Plant said. 

Plant said that the increase is part of a larger uptick in viruses in potatoes since 2010. He said that prior to that year, it was fairly common for only 1 percent of potato lots to not pass inspection, but the recent harvest had shown much higher numbers of potatoes infected with pathogens.

Plant said that while the high rejection rates would prevent those crops from being used as originally intended — as seed potatoes — producers would likely sell them to potato processors to make potato chips and french fries. 

Besides the post-harvest test results announcement, Maine Potato Board President Don Flannery singled out two bills in the Maine Legislature that he felt would hurt the potato industry, and he said he and the board’s lobbyist would actively fight against them.

LD 2083 would prohibit the use of all products containing neonicotinoids for landscape gardening by certified pesticide applicators, though it does give the Maine Board of Pesticide Control authority to allow the use of neonicotinoids it determines is necessary to “protect the State.” It would also require that same board to publish an annual report detailing the use of pesticides by commercial users, including the total quantity of pesticides used.

Flannery said that while the current wording of the bill does not affect the potato industry, he believes the prohibition on neonicotinoids could be expanded during the legislative process, affecting an insecticide extensively used within Maine’s potato businesses. 

Flannery said that if potato farmers were prohibited from using neonicotinoids, they would simply use larger amounts of a less effective pest control mechanism, and that new EPA reviews concerning neonicotinoids made the regulations “unnecessary.” 

“If we lose this tool in our IPM [integrated pest management] toolbox, the beetles and the bugs and everybody is still going to be there,” Flannery said. 

Flannery said he was also actively opposing LD 2104, which would establish a number of programs and new regulations to encourage recycling, including a requirement that producers of packaging pay a fee based on the weight of packaging material they sell within Maine. 

In turn, that fee will be used to reimburse municipalities for recycling and waste management costs.  

Flannery said that potato processors such as Frito-Lay could choose to make up for increased production costs by “finding it” within a supply chain, i.e. reducing prices for producers.