For the first time in more than four decades, a rail car parked outside a potato storage facility in Van Buren is filled and ready to move. The Maine Department of Transportation helped facilitate the process. Credit: Courtesy of Maine Department of Transportation

VAN BUREN, Maine — When Don Flannery of the Maine Potato Board suggested last fall that moving potatoes by rail would be ideal in the face of a trucking bottleneck, he didn’t know what a gem of an idea it was.

But LaJoie Growers of Van Buren knew, and this week Maine potatoes have left Aroostook County on rail cars, bound for big markets, for the first time in more than 40 years.

The 2021 harvest made history for its size — a roughly 20 percent greater yield than normal, thanks to near-perfect growing conditions. But that led to a few problems along the way: What to do with all the extra spuds, and how to get them to market in the middle of a trucking shortage.

Enter the Loring Development Authority, which offered the use of some unused buildings on the former Loring Air Force Base in Limestone — gratefully accepted by a few local growers who were out of storage options.

In November, Maine Potato Board Executive Director Don Flannery, said most raw and processed potatoes move out of The County via truck, which was even more challenging with slowdowns and driver shortages. The whole thing had delayed movement of The County’s crop to market, Flannery said.

Which is precisely why Flannery said rail would be ideal, but refrigeration was needed for perishable products like potatoes. And necessity begets ingenuity.

In Van Buren late Friday afternoon, Dominic LaJoie was heavily involved with shipping procedures and wasn’t able to offer details, but the Maine Department of Transportation reported Thursday that railroad reefers were rolling.

Potatoes sit in a refrigerated rail car in Van Buren, one of 33 rail cars that were loaded to make their journey from Aroostook County to Washington State.  Credit: Courtesy of the Maine Department of Transportation

“The Maine Northern Railroad and Union Pacific Railway arranged for refrigerated rail cars to be sent to Van Buren,” the department said via Twitter. “Thirty-three refrigerated rail cars are now loaded with spuds and bound for Washington state.”

The County’s use of rail earned a mention in Railfan & Railroad Magazine out of Bucklin, Missouri, in which reporter Justin Franz said some of the potatoes would move to Pan Am Railways in Massachusetts, then on to CSX (Canadian Pacific) and then to Union Pacific, bound for Washington state.

Maine Northern Railway is one of three short-line railroads overseen by NBM Railways, headquartered in Saint John, New Brunswick, and a part of the JD Irving companies. The other two lines are NB Southern and Eastern Maine Railway.