You Say Potato
The Maine Potato Blossom Festival in Fort Fairfield is an exuberant excuse to celebrate Aroostook County’s claim to fame.
- By: Peter Smith
Photograph by Natalie Conn
By the final match, even the referee, Jake Rogeski, has jumped over a hay bale and into the ring. Sticky, white potato mash flies up and over the square-bales and into the parking lot behind the old town offices.
The air smells of hot fryer oil and wet pavement. A crew of volunteer firefighters busily hoses down a little red-headed boy covered in mashed potatoes, two high-school girls with mashed potatoes on their Lycra cross-country ski pants, and a couple of mothers with mashed potatoes in their hair. White slurry floats across the parking lot.
“It’s instant mashed potatoes. Just add water and jump right in,” says the town’s unofficial historian, Oscar “Voscar” Nelder. “It’s got this soupy consistency like liquid mud. Everything’s instant these days.”
Welcome to the Maine Potato Blossom Festival in Fort Fairfield, a nine-day extravaganza in July that doubles as a homecoming weekend, where residents don’t just celebrate the potato, they wear it, too.
Aroostook County, the largest county east of the Mississippi, produces the most potatoes of any county in the United States. The County’s crop brings in about $275 million in revenue to Maine annually, according to Don Flannery, the executive director of the Maine Potato Board, the lobbying organization representing commercial potato growers, brokers, and processors. But even in the land of plenty, critics have said the mashed potato wrestling contest, one of the festival highlights, is a waste of food, especially when Aroostook County doles out food stamps to a fifth of its 74,000 residents.
Regardless, the event is a draw for Saturday’s early risers. The local Fox television affiliate, the public access channel, and the County’s radio station Channel X are out interviewing contestants. A shirtless local resident, Randy Lee, delicately picks a sticky, white substance out of his right ear as his son, Dustin, smiles and flaps his big, baggy T-shirt. Both are wearing potatoes and huge smiles.
In mid-July, the low rolling hills around the County bloom with approximately 56,000 acres of the tiny, star-shaped flowers of the Solanum tuberosum. Potato blossoms flank Routes 1 and 1A between the North Woods and the St. John River Valley, filling the spaces between dirt roads and trailers, wooden farmhouses, and round-roofed metal storage sheds that look like airplane hangars. The white potato varieties, Katahdin and Superior, bear pale lilac-colored blossoms; the popular Russet Burbanks have white flowers; and, Shepodys, another french fry variety, tend toward violet petals with an orange-green star center. The Frito-Lay 1533s are a patented variety that are not only ideal for making chips, but are also known for their distinctive purplish-blue color.
The blossoms form at the tops of leafy green plants that sprout from starchy underground tubers, each planted on neat mounds of pristine, loamy soil at an average rate of nine tubers per hill and 11,500 hills per acre. In all, that makes for about 5.9 billion tubers county-wide.
In 1937, when the festival began, Maine led the nation in potato production and the blossoms blanketed close to a quarter million acres. (Aroostook County had at least three times as many farms as it does today.) Over the last seventy years, farms became more productive — with higher average yields — while the total amount of land in potatoes declined. From 1997 to 2002 alone, 143 potatoes farmers “got done” — the vernacular for selling at auction, retiring, or quitting the farm altogether. The main reason: economics. For the average potato farmer, it costs about three thousand dollars an acre to invest in fertilizers, sprays, and other inputs, plus close to half a million in capital costs for a yield that averages a return, if all goes well, of about eight cents a pound ($7.80/cwt).
The plight of the Maine potato grower has a lot to do with advances in agricultural technology coupled with changes in the retail market. Increased mechanization has led to the consolidation of farmland into fewer hands. Other areas, including Idaho and parts of Canada, have better-irrigated lands and access to rail transportation, making production and delivery more efficient. And because the retail market has continued its distillation it has forced Maine potato growers to sell larger volumes to increasingly fewer retail buyers.
“It used to be every supermarket chain had their own potato buyer,” says Flannery. “So, as you were selling, you had a Rolodex, where you’d call all sorts of people. Now, all those buyers could be listed on a single three-by-five index card.” Fewer buyers means a less competitive marketplace for the potato farmer.
Maine’s potato industry has been affected by another factor: a shift in the nation’s eating habits.
The standard, fresh, round, white potato, which accounted for about half of Aroostook County’s crop sales as late as 1992, has been replaced with more Russet Burbanks, Frito-Lays, and other custom varieties designed specifically for frozen and prepared food clients. Only about 13 percent of the entire harvest is sold as whole, fresh potatoes to home cooks, chefs, or small stands at the county fair.
And apparently those that do buy fresh potatoes care more about price than place. The Maine Potato Board’s research has found that the source of the potato is “indistinguishable and largely unimportant to the customer.” This means, in the customer’s eyes, whether a potato comes from Maine or from Idaho, a fresh, unblemished potato is just that: a fresh, unblemished potato. The same thing goes for frozen Tater Tots or french fries. It all comes down to price.
Doug Bradbury runs Dough Boys, a french fry stand selling salty curls of freshly cooked chips at the Potato Blossom Festival. “I get potatoes wherever they’re cheapest. Five years ago, that was Idaho,” says Bradbury, who has also purchased potatoes from Prince Edward Island. “It’s pretty bad when you’ve got to get them out of Canada,” he says. “I’d rather support the state of Maine.” Taking a bag of Idaho potatoes to Aroostook County might seem like selling snow to Eskimos. It might seem sacrilegious. It might seem absurd. But it’s how the market works, and it’s what grocers do in order to give customers a year-round potato.
The Potato Blossom Festival coincides with a relative lull in the availability of Maine potatoes. Except for a few freshly dug “new potatoes” available at small, roadside farm stands, July marks the lowest quantity of commercially harvested Maine potatoes. Farmers harvest their crop in September after killing off the part of the potato plant that grows above the ground. Most of the 1.6 billion pound crop goes into storage for year-round processing. In June, typically only three million pounds remain from the previous fall.
One of the few places where potatoes are still being packed come July is Cavendish Farms Operations, Inc., located near a dusty Presque Isle parking lot. A large hopper truck filled with last fall’s crop of Russet Burbanks backs into a warehouse and a conveyor belt empties more than thirty thousand pounds of potatoes into the farm’s pack shed.
Scott Smith grew potatoes with his brother three years in a row at a loss before he “got done,” and began managing Cavendish Farms, a company owned by Robert Irving, of the Saint John, New Brunswick-based, Irving Oil company. Smith oversees about 1,675 planted acres of potatoes and tends thirteen storage sheds that are pumped with refrigerated air and a gaseous sprout inhibitor that keeps giant mounds of tubers in a state of dormancy for ten to thirteen months so that when they roll off the truck in July, they are chilly and look as if they had just been picked.
Inside the pack shed, four temporary workers from Mexico sort out green and damaged potatoes, which are sent to Naturally Potatoes, a division of Basic American Foods in Mars Hill, for processing. Smith says he gladly hired ten migrant workers for the packing plant through the federal guest worker program because he received only two local applicants who passed the company’s background check. According to Smith, locals prefer fieldwork to jobs in the packing plants. And Smith still hires as many of the eligible high-school students who come into his office during the fall harvest school break. But, he says, fewer residents are accustomed to working farm hours — ten to eighty hours a week, depending on the weather and the seasons. “I can see it coming,” he says, “we’re eventually going to have [to hire] migrant workers on the farm, [too]. Most of my crew is retired people. I have one worker in his twenties.”
The conveyor belt moves a long bobbing line of potatoes through a grading machine. Two additional workers check the potatoes again, and another machine weighs and mechanically bags them at 10.27 pounds a bag. At this rate, it takes about two hours to pack fifty thousand pounds on pallets inside a fifty-three-foot refrigerated box trailer destined for supermarket distribution centers in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, or North Carolina.
Nothing on the bag of Cavendish Farms’ potatoes indicates in what state the packed potatoes originated. Maine state law only requires potatoes and apples to have a country of origin, and the legislature permits the additional “Maine Quality Trademark” label for a higher grade of Maine potato. Labels that emphasize origin are more popular with smaller growers, who sell directly to restaurants, farmers’ markets, and mail-order customers. Jim and Megan Gerritsen, of Wood Prairie Farm in Bridgewater, market organic potatoes through their Web site and the Crown O’ Maine Organic Cooperative. Their bags are clearly marked Maine.
“I think New Englanders are the most loyal in the U.S., and people will go way out of their way to buy local,” Jim says. “There is a lot of regional loyalty. I think that’s an inherent advantage to any farmer, including the Maine potato farmer.”
Chef Rob Evans at Hugo’s restaurant in Portland is one of those loyal customers. Every fall, Evans offers a multiple-course Maine potato dinner featuring specialty and heirloom Maine spuds. But Evans is the exception. “It’s not our position to tell buyers what they want or what their customers want,” Smith says. “We tell them what we have. We’ll do whatever they want. Without belaboring the phrase, ‘The customer is always right.’ ”
As of yet, the Maine-branded potato has not commanded a premium on the large-scale commodities market. Instead, a Maine potato is often just a Burger King french fry that may as well have come from Mars rather than Mars Hill.
The locavore movement offers farmers like the Gerritsens hope, but even if everyone in Maine ate the national average of 142 pounds of potatoes a year, it would only account for about a tenth of the total amount of potatoes grown annually. That means Mainers would need to eat about four pounds a day to deplete the state’s total yearly production.
“The great irony is that the incredibly good conditions for growing potatoes also gives Aroostook County the tendency to grow too many for local consumption,” Gerritsen says. “It chronically overproduces. So if you’ve got a declining demand, you’re going to run into oversupply.”
Until the entire East Coast comes back around to eating local spuds in season and cooking with whole potatoes, farmers will either have to look for lucrative niche markets or continue doing what they’ve always done — making better, fresher, more uniform, longer-lasting potatoes in oversupply. Some farmers are diversifying and growing an increasing amount of broccoli, canola, and, experimentally, wheat. The Maine Potato Board touts new uses for spuds, including improved potato chips, plastics derived from potatoes, and even potato vodka. But oversupply generally secures something that consumers tend to like and don’t want to lose: cheap food.
On Saturday, the Potato Blossom Festival reaches its pinnacle with a parade that snakes through Fort Fairfield. The downtown is lined with two gas stations, a park, and a tall earthen levee along the Aroostook River. For most of the last sixty-two years (the festival was suspended during WWII), the downtown has filled up twice a year: once in the spring when ice jams flood Main Street with chilly snowmelt, and in July, when thousands of residents and visitors flock to the festival. In the parade, a large Mr. Potato Head floats down Main Street. A line of antique tractors follows a battalion of Civil War reenactors. There’s free candy, Coca-Cola distributes free VitaminWaters, Cary Medical Center promotes healthy eating with bananas and Red Delicious apples, and a Frito-Lay truck, with a banner saying, “Proudly Supporting Local Maine Farms,” tosses out thousands of free bags of chips. A car topped with Miss Fairfield passes. So does a Miss Mapleton, a Jr. Miss Caribou, a Miss Caribou, and a Petite Miss Greater St. John Valley — all competing for Saturday night’s climatic crowning of the Miss Maine Potato Blossom Queen. The smiling beauty queens, with neatly-styled hair and shimmering prom dresses, wave their hands through the air as if they were wiping fog off the inside window of a pickup truck.
Later that night, the high-school gym explodes with whistles and shouts as the moderator asks the crowd favorite Miss Mapleton, Hannah Cheney, the second runner-up, what she likes about the County. “It’s one big family,” she says. “Everyone knows each other. And I have older people come up to me all the time saying, ‘I remember you when you were this big.’ It’s just great to know the history behind everything. You know everyone, and there’s always a big connection.”
The County has a reputation of being so friendly that no one ever leaves, but when Cheney graduates, she’ll join what some consider the region’s largest export — its children — by attending a Christian college in Haverhill, Massachusetts.
“There used to be three legs supporting the economy in Aroostook County: Loring Air Force Base, the forest products industry, and the potato industry,” says Charles Colgan, a professor of public policy at the University of Southern Maine Muskie School of Public Service. “One of those legs went away entirely and the other two got sawed off. That explains most of the out-migration.”
Things are different than they were twenty years ago,” says the Maine Potato Board’s Don Flannery. “People are two and three generations removed from the farm. Back then, you had more of connection to agriculture. Now, there’s a disconnect. They don’t know what’s going on, so they don’t see the opportunities. But we’re always going to have food produced in this county.”
Down Route 1A from the high school, Easton’s baby-blue McCain Foods, Ltd. plant glows in the cool night air. On the wide-open stretch of farmland around the french fry processing facility grows a harbinger of hope for the fall harvest, the reason for the festival itself: millions of tiny potato blossoms.
- By: Peter Smith