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Potato Board happy about spud quality, new variety

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — After one of the most unique potato harvests in recent memory, Don Flannery, executive director of the Maine Potato Board, said Wednesday that he felt good about all the industry accomplished this year and was optimistic about year ahead. 

“We really had no substantial changes in acreage from this year over last year,” Flannery said. “The quality of the potatoes was also good, which was also a concern due to the hot weather that we had during harvest. In the end, we were lucky that it didn’t turn out to be too much of a problem.”

Statewide, the amount of Maine land devoted to potatoes is down by about 3 percent this year to an estimated 48,500 acres, according to figures provided by the Maine Potato Board. The figure is down from about 58,000 acres 10 years ago, which reflects farmers both aging out of the business and diversifying their crops.

Flannery said growers continually focus on maintaining a quality product, which he said they accomplished this year while also seeing success through the introduction of the Caribou Russet.

The Caribou Russet was developed by the University of Maine, and is a russet-skinned variety with high yields, midseason maturity and moderate common scab resistance. It is a dual-purpose potato, which means in addition to fresh-market consumption, it is also useful for processing markets. The variety was first made available to consumers at last year’s Maine Harvest Festival in Bangor, where stock quickly sold out. The potato is now available at Hannaford Supermarkets statewide and Tradewinds markets in Eastern Maine.

Growers continue to face challenges from farmers in Canada and the West, according to Flannery, but that is nothing new.

“It is what it is,” he said Wednesday. “We have the same people who are raising the same product, and the challenge is not to overgrow the market so that there is more than people need. It is a balancing act.”

One of the biggest challenges this year, the executive director acknowledged, was a September heat wave that brought the harvest almost to a standstill for several days that month. Aroostook County saw temperatures in the 80s for four consecutive days, which was the hottest stretch ever recorded that late in the season Caribou. The stretch included back-to-back days of 88-degree heat.

The record-breaking temperatures wreaked havoc because they can cause quality problems for potatoes going into storage. Farmers were forced to send their crews home early — or not call them in at all — and the harvest was extended into late October in some cases.

Gregg Garrison of Garrison Farms of Blaine said that he was “pleasantly surprised” by how his 750 acres of spuds turned out this year.

“I was concerned after that hot, dry weather that we had,” he said Wednesday. “We did have to delay the harvest like a number of other people, but we got what we planted out of the ground.”

Garrison said that he worked for more than a month with a crew of 23 people to harvest his crop of red, russet burbank and shepody potatoes. He sold the product to Pineland Farms, McCain Foods and Fox Family Potato Chips.

“I think that the rain that came kicked in at just the right moment,” he said.

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