Wood Prairie Family Farm founder Jim Gerritsen prepares detailed weather information each Monday before shipping out certified organic seed potatoes across the country. Credit: Kathleen Phalen Thomaselli / Houlton Pioneer Times

BRIDGEWATER, Maine Winter Mondays start with weather maps at one Aroostook County farm.

The ritual begins just after sunrise at Wood Prairie Family Farm in Bridgewater, which sells certified organic seed potatoes. Before sending products to buyers in places like California, Kansas, Alaska and New York, staff have to decide if it’s safe to ship, and in which direction. 

It’s common for farmers to study climatological patterns for planting and harvesting. But as one of the only mail-order seed potato shippers in the country that ships 10 months a year, the farm has to plot the weather to stay in business. They can’t afford to ship if there’s a chance the order will freeze along the way, farm founder Jim Gerritsen said.

“By far the biggest portion of our shipments go out during the coldest months of the year.  If we weren’t paying attention to the weather, the consequences would be catastrophic and would swallow up most of our annual farm income,” Gerritsen said.

The farm ships from September to July, but January and the first half of February are the toughest months, he said. Whether it’s a small sampler box for beginning gardeners or hundreds of pounds to a farmer’s market grower, the seed potatoes have to arrive undamaged.

The direct mail order farm ships about 150,000 to 200,000 pounds of certified organic seed potatoes per year to home gardeners and larger growers. Their 21 varieties include Rose Gold, Red Cloud, Southern Belle, All Blue, Russian Banana Fingerling, King Harry and Prairie Blush.

On Mondays and at midweek, Gerritsen must first determine if the shipment can make it out of Aroostook County. He spends several hours poring over the National Weather Service’s most recent climatological maps, and plots weather projections along U.S. Postal Service and FedEx shipping routes. 

“No one else here in Maine has the same need to be so obsessive about the national weather.  Most of our competition only ships seed potatoes for a matter of weeks in the spring after the weather has moderated, “ Gerritsen said.

He logs high and low temperatures for northern points like Bangor, Portland, Montpelier, Boston, Hartford, New York City and Buffalo. Those early warning spots can indicate impending cold weather here, he said.

An seed potato order headed south can still freeze somewhere along the way. If they can get it safely out of Aroostook County and headed down the Atlantic seaboard, the rest is easy, but if the south is getting snow it turns colder, Gerritsen said. 

Despite weather prediction efforts and shipping big potato orders in double boxes, lined with an inch of foam and marked “Do not freeze,”  there can be a few oddball frozen shipments each year, he said. 

Gerritsen founded Wood Prairie more than 40 years ago. When the farm started mail order 35 years ago, there were times they sent out $1,000 worth of perishable product only to learn the entire batch had frozen in transit. 

“One cold January, probably 1994, which was the coldest month on record ever in Caribou, we were shut down by cold and unable to ship for four consecutive weeks,” Gerritsen said. “Then it took us another month to catch up again.” 

They send out 10 times what they shipped then and have gotten better at deciding when to ship, he said. 

Gerritsen calls some states headache states because they are cold destinations. He gives those highest priority. Orders are packed and shipped on an ideal weather day so they reach their destinations before another cold blast hits.

On Monday Gerritsen was looking at a shipment for Kansas. He looked at northernmost cities where temperatures were forecast to be 18 and 21 degrees, but then pointed to a cold weather pattern pushing down with temperatures dropping to 15. 

The farm didn’t ship to Kansas. If temperatures drop below 20 degrees at a destination, there is a risk of freezing, he said. 

Next week the farm will start shipping scheduled spring orders. The first shipments will go out to Florida and Hawaii, and the following week Alabama, California and Georgia will follow. Every week thereafter a new region opens up, Gerritsen said. Alaska is the last week after Maine on May 1.

Sometimes buyers request specific shipping times.

“When somebody orders and wants their own ship date, we have to accommodate them,” Gerritsen said.

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Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli

Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli is a reporter covering the Houlton area. Over the years, she has covered crime, investigations, health, politics and local government, writing for the Washington Post, the LA...