A man picks potato blossoms off of a plant
Beth Plummer, scientific technician at the Aroostook Research Farm in Presque Isle, collects potato blossom pollen to be used to start a new variety of the crop. Credit: Paula Brewer / Star-Herald

The largest pot of federal funding for the University of Maine program that develops new potato varieties is on the budgetary chopping block, risking the program’s future. 

The Biden administration is proposing to eliminate funding for a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant program that provides funding for the University of Maine’s potato breeding program.

The university’s potato research, which operates out of the Aroostook Farm research facility in Presque Isle, has led to the creation of a new variety of potato, the Caribou Russet, that has boosted russet yields across the state.

The breeding program’s researchers have 45,000 new varieties in various stages of testing each year. Much of their work now focuses on developing potato varieties that can grow in a warmer, wetter climate.

Varieties from the UMaine program that were grown last year had a seed value of $25.8 million and a potential production value of $239.4 million, according to the program’s summary of its current research.

Funding for the spud research grant has been on the chopping block before, including during the Obama administration, when current Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was serving in the same post.

The program was also on the chopping block during the federal budget process last year. However, Sen. Susan Collins rallied congressional support to push for increased funding. 

Cutting the program would eliminate the approximately $500,000 UMaine receives annually for its research. In the same budget, the Biden administration is proposing to increase discretionary spending for the U.S. Department of Agriculture by $2 billion.

Sen. Susan Collins holds up a graphic that shows the difference in potatoes and bananas during an appropriations meeting May 10, 2022. Credit: Courtesy Sen. Collins’ office

During an appropriations hearing Tuesday, Collins argued for continued funding for the program, pointing to the Caribou Russet variety and a recent outbreak of potato wart in Canada’s Prince Edward Island as evidence that research that leads to heartier crops is critical.

Vilsack told members of Congress that money from the potato research grant could be redirected to other research projects that are underfunded, but agreed the agency would keep funding it if ordered to. 

“Obviously, if Congress basically directs us to maintain that program, we obviously will,” Vilsack said.  

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University of Maine President Joan Ferrini Mundy said continuing to fund the program is needed.

“This proven program has positively improved the health of the potato industry here in Maine and across the nation, as well as dependent rural economies and communities — all while providing our nation nutritious, high-quality, affordable American-grown produce,” she said.

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Sawyer Loftus

Sawyer Loftus is an investigative reporter at the Bangor Daily News. A graduate of the University of Vermont, Sawyer grew up in Vermont where he worked for Vermont Public Radio, The Burlington Free Press...