Baked, fried, chipped, mashed. Everybody loves potatoes, and Aroostook County farmers love growing them.
Every year, farmers in the northernmost part of the state plant, cultivate and harvest more than 54,000 acres. That’s more than the size of the entire city of Portland. And those potatoes are shipped throughout the East Coast, and to places farther afield such as Idaho, Washington, and even into Canada.
Last year was a particularly good year for the 250 potato farmers in The County, because of drought in other parts of the country, according to Jeannie Tapley, director of operations at the Maine Potato Board in Presque Isle. Tapley and the farmers are hoping that trend keeps up.
Growing potatoes is not an easy profession, Tapley said, but it is rewarding because the community of farmers throughout the state, but primarily in The County, take the work of providing high-quality food seriously, even when the weather doesn’t always cooperate.
“Farmers work hard and give their all,” she said, “and they have a work ethic that a lot of the public doesn’t understand.”
Potato farmers give their best for the County, the state, and the country, including giving away bags of potatoes to families during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. But it’s not always easy, and this year has been a bit slower to start than farmers like: Fields are still a bit wet, although some farmers are already out turning over what fields they can even though there was snow across much of The County, and it is not always easy to get workers.
Ten to 20 years ago, there also were more farm families, and most schools closed for Harvest Break when help was needed for picking. But fewer schools continue that practice, so it means less help available during harvest. And while equipment is more technical, thus easing the workload, potatoes can’t be grown just with technology, and not as many young people seem drawn to potato production as in the past.
“The harvesting of food just doesn’t seem as valued as it once was,” Tapley said. “Potato farmers have a work ethic, and they are doing it to feed people and help the economy. … Sometimes they put their life on the line to feed the state and others.”
And to complicate things, more and more young people are going elsewhere instead of taking over the family farm.
So, the next time you pick up a bag of potatoes, or nibble on a potato chip, think of The County and the families who are putting their efforts and their pride into feeding people. Grab a bag of Maine spuds. You’ll be glad you did.
Jan Grieco is a retired college instructor and former newspaper reporter. She lives in Perham, where she farms and lives off the land.