With about 80 percent of the Aroostook County potato harvest complete, yields are expected to be above average. Credit: Julia Bayly / BDN

Like a good poker player, Don Flannery, president of the Maine Potato Board, is playing it close to the vest in terms of this year’s potato harvest. He’s not about to call it a record year — yet. But with about 80 percent of this season’s potatoes out of the ground, the longtime industry expert said yields are shaping up to be above average.

“Until the United States Department of Agriculture comes out with their numbers later this year, I never make any predictions,” Flannery said. “So far the yields are above average and the quality, size and profile of those potatoes has been tremendous.”

That’s good news for Aroostook County potato farmers. Last year a drought combined with COVID-related drops in the potato markets resulted in the 2020 crop being down 20 percent from the previous year. On top of that, when the pandemic closed restaurant doors across the country in March of 2020, orders for 2019’s potatoes still in storage dropped drastically, leaving farmers fearful they would have to dump half of that crop.

“Last year we were still in a COVID hangover,” Flannery said. “Acreage had been cut down due to uncertainty in the markets.”

But with demands for fresh potatoes up due to more people cooking and eating at home and more processors turning Maine potatoes into chips, french fries and hash browns, there was an increase of around 8,000 acres this year, according to Flannery.

“Contracts are back and it was an ideal growing season,” Flannery said. “I think everybody is optimistic.”

Robby Irving of Irving Farms Inc. in Caribou certainly is. And much of his outlook has to do with a relatively new potato variety developed by the University of Maine: the Caribou russet.

“We are having a great harvest,” Irving said. “The Caribou russet is one variety that has really shined this year.”

Irving said around 30 percent of the 850 acres the farm has in potatoes this year was planted in Caribou russets. The variety has a solid reputation as a fresh eating tuber and one used for processing.

“A lot of the guys are growing them,” Irving said. “It’s looking to be a really good shipping season and the Caribou russet this year did really well in size and profile.”

Unlike the issues facing gardeners and small farms in other parts of the state, virtually all the potatoes harvested in Aroostook County this year are coming out of the ground free of common potato scab.

“We don’t want anyone to have a picture that we are having a sub-par year as far as quality goes,” Irving said. “All the potatoes so far look impeccable.”

Flannery, who in 2016 predicted the Caribou russet had great potential, said this week that the variety is a game changer for Aroostook County farmers.

The variety is both scab resistant, requires less fertilizer than other potatoes and is tolerant to dry conditions. It’s a combination Flannery said helped boost this year’s crop.

“We have never heard a bad thing about the Caribou russet,” Flannery said. “At this point it’s been out there on the markets long enough it has proved itself.”

It’s even won him over.

“Grew up in Fort Fairfield, so I have eaten a lot of potatoes and I was always a round white or red guy,” Flannery said. “The Caribou russet has a very unique flavor to it, now I’m eating russets.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.