The fact that potatoes are more than three-quarters water may have offset some challenges for Aroostook farmers during this year’s wet and unpredictable growing season.
With the 2023 crop in storage, northern Maine growers are now packing potatoes to send them to market or to be processed into chips, french fries and other foods.
Aroostook County’s vast area produces about 90 percent of Maine’s potatoes, and had remarkable yields in 2021 and 2022. Potatoes brought in $258 million both years. Keeping that momentum going is crucial for survival in a climate that keeps changing.
Now, growers depend on technology to create more adaptable varieties, treat fields and store the harvest — and to help mitigate the effects of weather in a year like this one.
“Potatoes are 80 percent water, so they grow well when they’re well watered,” said Noah Winslow, sales and marketing representative at Caribou’s Irving Farms, noting the wet weather had little effect on the crop. “Our yields were very much on par with the last couple of years, which were tremendous years.”
The farm grows mostly Caribou russets on about 1,000 acres. The other 2,000 acres are planted with rotation crops, Winslow said.
There’s no question there were some growing season challenges this year, but farmers deal with something every year, he said. In years when it’s too dry, they need to irrigate to supplement rainfall. In years when it’s too wet, controlled storage makes the difference.
The farm is in the middle of the busiest packing season as Thanksgiving nears, Winslow said. The potatoes are of consistent quality, thanks in part to modern technology.
This year the farm added a new temperature- and humidity-controlled storage building which will hold 5.5 million pounds of potatoes. That may sound like a lot, but Irving sells mostly to fresh potato markets — grocery stores, restaurant chains and institutional facilities. It’s important to keep the potatoes in a consistent environment so they get where they’re going with the same quality, Winslow said.
Some Russet varieties tend toward dryness, but the farm has found the Caribou Russet to be a good all-around potato, he said.
Launched in 2016, the Caribou russet was developed by the University of Maine and the Maine Potato Board.
In Frenchville, L&L Paradis Farms also grows the russet variety, along with Clearwater russet and a yellow-fleshed potato called the Soraya. Yields this year were good and the potatoes are holding up well in storage, Adam Paradis said.
The farm plants about 350 acres of potatoes. The late-September stretch of sunny, dry weather allowed them to get all their crop in before the next rain hit, he said.
In early October, local farmers expected to leave some potatoes in the ground that were too wet to dig. Paradis Farms had to leave about an acre and a half in the fields, but that wasn’t enough to make a difference in their overall bottom line, Paradis said.
“We were pretty surprised,” he said. “It wasn’t as much as we were expecting. It was so wet this summer, we thought a lot would be drowned.”
Some of the heavy rain wound up missing the St. John Valley, which helped out quite a bit, he said.
Paradis Farms also employs environmentally controlled storage in two of their four storage areas, he said.
About two-thirds of the Frenchville farm’s potatoes are under contract with processor Penobscot McCrum of Washburn, Paradis said. The rest are sold in 5- and 10-pound bags to fresh markets in Maine and along the East Coast to North Carolina.
It’s too soon for a final yield tally of this year’s crop. The United States Department of Agriculture started surveying growers last month and typically issues a report later in the fall.
For the past two years, some seed growers shipped by train to the Pacific Northwest in controlled refrigeration cars. Both Irving and Paradis ship by truck.
Paradis employs Aroostook trucking companies, while Irving has its own company called North State Transportation.
“It’s a sister to Irving Farms and is an integral part of the operation,” Winslow said. “Nearly all [the crop] goes out by truck to East Coast markets, mostly in the Northeast.”