Most produce departments in any grocery store or supermarket sell at least a half dozen varieties of potatoes from all over the country.
California grows at least three varieties, not including sweet potatoes, and Idaho produces more than 30 varieties, including russet Burbank and other popular spuds.
But Maine, especially The County, has been known as one of the top potato-producing states in the country since the 1940s when it topped the charts as the No. 1 producer. About 42,000 acres are planted statewide every year, harvested, and shipped to markets across the country. If you’ve eaten frozen French fries or Lay’s chips, you’ve likely eaten Aroostook potatoes.
Matt White of Washburn has 900 acres, slightly less than a square mile, planted in russet Burbank and Caribou russet potatoes, rotating the plantings from one 300-acre parcel to another every year. One year it’s potatoes and the next year grain or grass to allow the soil to rest and continue producing potatoes in future years. The practice works well, White said because a 300-acre planting produces 10 million pounds of potatoes in just one year.
You might say that potatoes are in White’s blood because along with most of the other growers, potatoes are a family heritage. His grandfather was Canadian, but in 1925 he crossed over into the states, bought acreage in Washburn, and began growing potatoes.
The tradition got passed down through the years. When his grandfather died in 1958, White’s uncle ran the operation until the 1980s when his father took over the operation. In 2014, White began buying land for potatoes, making it almost a century of potato growing in the family.
Although some people might think that planting and harvesting so many potatoes hurt the environment, the operations use very few pesticides, and by rotating the plantings from year to year it works out well. And ultimately, family farms need to be taken care of.
Success depends on a lot of things.
Weather, of course, plays a big role, but perhaps even more important is finding help to work the harvest. Regularly, White said, he has three full-time workers every year and hires 15 or 16 additional employees. But that’s getting difficult.
In years past, high schools closed for harvest break, a one-to-two-week vacation in late September. In recent years, however, schools have been scrutinizing how many students actually work the break or just use the time off as an extra vacation. But White, like many other growers, says those extra workers are important.
“It’s difficult to find people to work harvest,” he said. “Most of the workers I can get are retired and come back just to help or because they love it. Not having the students makes it really hard.”
While much of work is mechanized by newer equipment, some of which White bought because of the likelihood of not having high school workers, it’s still rugged work and long days, and often family members step up. White’s daughter and his college-age son both help during harvest, and when he can hire high schoolers on break they usually are available only junior and senior years before heading off to college.
It’s clear that White loves the work and puts his heart into it, but he’s worried that in the future there will be fewer kids working the farms.
“You have to have the heart to raise food to feed people,” he said. “It’s not a job; it’s a livelihood and a lifestyle.”
Jan Grieco is a retired college instructor and former newspaper reporter. She lives in Perham, where she farms and lives off the land.