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

Eighty tons — four legal truckloads — is how many potatoes fill a railcar. Jay LaJoie knows because his company has sent nearly 40 of those cars loaded with Aroostook County’s 2021 crop to processors on the other side of the country.

LaJoie, co-owner of LaJoie Growers LLC of Van Buren, said the company has always been interested in shipping spuds by rail, and since December, it has shipped more than 3,000 tons of potatoes for chips, fries and other food products from all over The County.

In recent years, using rail from Aroostook County to ship crops to market was too costly, and there weren’t enough refrigerated cars available.  But with improvements in railroad equipment and infrastructure — and a determined potato industry that struggles with the trucker shortage — LaJoie said the future of shipping across the country by train looks promising.

“We load 10 or more cars a week,” LaJoie said. “There’s no real sign of slowing down right now. It seems like we have work at least for the next couple of months.”

LaJoie said they are shipping processing potatoes this week, then will move to seed shipments and back to processing.

The company has actually used rail at some points during the shipping process, but couldn’t get refrigerated cars this far north, so they trucked the product to areas like New York and used rail from there.

Refrigerated cars are special, LaJoie said. They are well insulated, GPS tracked and monitored. But railroads across the country have been investing in staffing and equipment and improving tracks, so this year his company was able to use refrigerated transport.

“Kind of the con was the transit time — a week with a truck vs. three weeks with rail cars,” LaJoie said. “But given the fact that we’ve done it and the quality of those potatoes was maintained well over the three weeks, they processed well.”

It isn’t just LaJoie’s spuds being shipped. A number of area farms, from Houlton to Ashland and into the St. John Valley, are hauling their surplus processing potatoes to Van Buren, where they are loaded and sent down the tracks.

“It was a group effort.  This project negotiation was put together by myself, LaJoie Growers LLC, along with the Agricultural Bargaining Council. And then the broker that’s handling the farms is the Maine Farmers Exchange.”

Both the bargaining council and Maine Farmers Exchange are based in Presque Isle, where they work with producers to obtain good pricing and marketing for their potatoes.

Due to the record 2021 harvest, there were more potatoes that local processors weren’t using, so the group began in October to find new potential customers and ways to get the spuds to other regions that needed them. They worked with a number of processors outside Maine and with Union Pacific and Maine Northern Railway, among others, LaJoie said.

The parties came to an agreement in November and locked in the refrigerated cars, and shipping began in December.

Most of the processing potatoes so far have headed to the Pasco, Washington, area, where they are being manufactured into frozen potato products. LaJoie said they will also ship seed potatoes to Idaho and Washington.

The experience makes LaJoie think shipment by rail holds promise for the future. Van Buren already has daily rail service for lumber. With an engine running about six days a week, the town is an efficient rail hub, he said.

“Futuristically, I’d like to see more shipped out via rail — not only potatoes, but wood products and others,” LaJoie said. “I would describe the rail market right now as a growing business.”