PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Beer, cattle feed and that cooking oil in your pantry have a common element. Hint: Think potato country.
Aroostook County farmers have for years explored alternative crops. The sugar beets of decades ago eventually failed, but broccoli has become a resounding success story. Others, like clover, hay and grains, are used as rotation crops to nourish soil between potato plantings.
Though spuds reign supreme in The County, that famously fertile farmland grows a whole range of vegetables, fruits and other crops that farmers have spun into gold: from flaxen grainfields and golden sunflowers to deep amber ales.
Here are just a few of the crops you might be surprised to find growing in Aroostook.
This all-important ingredient in beer and ale grows by climbing on tall trellises.
Hops flowers were initially used for their antibacterial properties, helping keep the beer from spoiling, but became popular for the bitterness they provided to boost the beverage’s flavor, said the Farmer’s Almanac.
Though most of the country’s hops are grown in Idaho, Oregon and Washington state, The County is making its mark as the craft beer industry grows. Aroostook Hops of Westfield produces hops for Maine breweries such as Lubec Brewing Company, Northern Maine Brewing in Caribou, Geaghan Brothers Brewing of Bangor and Allagash Brewing of Portland.
Jason Johnston runs the certified organic operation with his wife, Krista Delahunty, and their daughters. The couple started the farm in 2009. The hops are harvested, dried and formed into pellets before being packaged and sold.
Hold on, blueberries and raspberries. There’s another berry that tastes like a cross between both of you, and it took off in the St. John Valley.
The Voisine family of Fort Kent and New Canada started growing blue, oval haskap berries about seven years ago at Allagash View Farms. They have sold the crop not only as fresh berries, but also to be made into syrup and beer.
Haskaps are in the honeysuckle family and are hardy shrubs that can survive temperatures down to about 20 degrees, according to the Utah State University Yard and Garden Extension. That makes them ideal for the sometimes chilly and short growing season in Aroostook County.
The berries have a higher vitamin C content than even strawberries, blueberries and raspberries, the Extension said. They can be substituted for blueberries in many recipes.
From summer through early fall, fields of deep yellow sunflowers with their brown centers and giant green leaves dot The County landscape.
Sunflower seeds are used as food products and for oil, but many who grow them sell the seeds for bird food.
There are fields from Fort Kent through Caribou, Mapleton, Monticello and Houlton, according to Aroostook County Tourism, which urges people not to pick the blooms but leave them to be viewed by everyone.
The only drawback is the season is short, starting in August and lasting into early fall. For now, those golden heads still to be harvested are bowed and drying. But watch for them in bird feeders soon.
With its tiny yellow flowers and tallish green stems, you might think canola looks a lot like mustard.
Surprisingly, canola is in the same family as mustard — and broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower. It’s prized for its use in healthful cooking because it has the least saturated fat of vegetable oils, according to the U.S. Canola Association.
Though canola is primarily used for its oil, there are a couple of other uses for the crop, said the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. Crushed canola seed meal has a high protein content and is used in livestock food, and the oil has a possible use as fuel in the biodiesel market.
Mapleton is one place where canola is grown in Aroostook. If you visit popular local Facebook sites like Positively Aroostook and My Aroostook, you’ll see a treasure trove of photographs featuring swaths of these bright yellow fields.
No one can think of the St. John Valley and Maine’s Acadian heritage without including ployes.
The traditional thin pancakes are made with buckwheat flour, cooked on one side and usually eaten rolled up to accompany meals. Bouchard Family Farm of Fort Kent produces and markets its own ploye mix, which can be found in grocery stores across the state.
Buckwheat is used for food products as well as livestock feed. Its use is growing as people embrace more whole-grain foods, and because it’s gluten-free, buckwheat is helpful for those on restrictive diets, said the University of Iowa’s Agricultural Marketing Resource Center.
Buckwheat hulls also have a second life as garden mulch or as filler for pillows and mattresses.
They may not be food, but at holiday time they’re as popular as any dish on the table. Christmas trees are one of The County’s top crops.
Aroostook ranked first among Maine’s 16 counties for vegetables, including potatoes, and grains, Christmas trees and cattle, said the USDA’s most recent Census of Agriculture profile.
Though many people opt for artificial decorations for safety or other reasons, purchasing real trees, wreaths and boughs supports local agricultural producers.
But a real tree also benefits the environment: you can plant some versions in your yard in the spring. The County’s numerous tree farms are everywhere from the St. John Valley through southern Aroostook.