Aroostook growers are preparing extra storage space for their potatoes after last year's stellar crop.
In this Oct. 13, 2021, file photo, workers from Butler Farms watch a bin piler unload thousands of potatoes into a former military storage facility at Loring Development Center. Credit: Hannah Catlin / Aroostook Republican & News

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — With about half of Aroostook County’s potato crop out of the ground, some farmers are already using extra storage they planned after last year’s bumper crop.

At least right now, there’s no word of farmers running out of storage space, said Don Flannery, Maine Potato Board executive director. Last year, some growers sought storage space at the former Loring Air Force Base in Limestone because there were so many spuds they ran out of places to put them.

Maine’s No. 1 crop brought in sales topping $209 million last year, up from $152 million in 2020. After a stellar 2021 crop that yielded 20 percent above normal, growers have to be wondering if it can happen again. Whether it does or not, farmers are preparing extra storage just in case.

“The high yield makes all these farmers innovative,” said Robbie Irving, co-owner of Irving Farms in Caribou. “We have a few extra spaces for additional potato storage. We’ve used one to date and plan to use the others as we continue through digging.”

Irving staff reported their harvest was more than half complete on Thursday, and from what they’ve seen so far, the crop is exceeding their expectations.

The multigenerational farm, which has grown potatoes since 1936, had little need for irrigation this year. The temperatures, essential rain and just the right amount of sun provided optimal conditions.

Aroostook was the only Maine county that didn’t suffer from drought during the summer. That was good for potatoes, which thrive under balanced moisture conditions.

Despite a wet planting season and a rainy June in Aroostook, the rest of the summer provided moderate rainfall and the slightly cooler temperatures that potatoes favor. Pests and diseases remained low, according to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension in Presque Isle.

Growers are reporting good quality so far thanks to a good growing season, Flannery said. Though there were dry periods, Aroostook saw nothing like the drought conditions Maine’s other counties experienced, and there were no long stretches of 90-degree days.  

“We’re over half done, easily. I fully suspect that you’ll see some growers next week starting to wrap up,” he said. “All indications are that there’s a quality crop going into storage.”

Maine farmers planted 60,000 acres of potatoes this spring. That number is up from last year’s 58,000, which grew from 51,000 acres in the previous two years, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Last year, trucking bottlenecks and driver shortages slowed shipping of the crop. LaJoie Farms of Van Buren turned to rail shipment, and sent around 3,200 tons of Aroostook County potatoes to processors in Washington state where poor growing conditions affected the local crop.

At the time, LaJoie said he hoped rail would play a bigger role in the future.

If the situation happens again and Western state processors need Maine potatoes, the industry would definitely ship those by train, Flannery said.

Though it’s too soon to know if it’s another record year for potatoes, it’s certainly nice to think about. Flannery hesitated to predict that it would happen for a second year in a row.

“I’ve been around this industry my whole life, and it was something to see that yield last year,” he said.

At least one Maine crop has had an unprecedented haul this year. Oats produced a record yield of 2.06 million bushels, up 39 percent from last year’s 1.48 million yield, U.S. Department of Agriculture officials said Friday.