Maine farmers ship millions of pounds of potatoes west to help after drought

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Potato farmers in Maine had such a bumper crop last season that they stepped in to help their big brothers out west who were running out of potatoes.

Maine farmers shipped potatoes by rail for the first time in four decades this winter thanks to a large harvest in the state and hot and dry weather that hampered farmers in growing states. renowned potatoes like Idaho and Washington. The potatoes traveled more than 2,500 miles (4,000 kilometers) to be processed, in air-conditioned wagons.

A total of 21 million pounds (9.5 million kilograms) of potatoes, virtually all from northern Maine growers, passed through a rail-connected warehouse owned by LaJoie Growers LLC. That equates to more than 530 truckloads of potatoes, co-owner Jay LaJoie said.

“It’s a great piece of potato,” said Don Flannery, executive director of the Maine Potato Board.

In this photo provided by Jay LaJoie, russet potatoes produced by Maine growers are packed to be loaded onto a railroad car heading to Washington State.

Most Maine potatoes went to processors in Washington state, where much of the fries and other produce are exported. Shipments to Idaho were seed potatoes, including Maine russet caribou, which will be planted this spring.

Chris Voigt of the Washington State Potato Commission said processors are grateful for the potato shipments, but hope the services of Maine growers will not be needed in the future.

The expeditions ended prematurely about two weeks ago, in part due to economic disruption caused by the war in Ukraine. But it lasted while it lasted, helping potato processors in western states while reducing an oversupply of Maine potatoes.

It also proved the value of rail lines to agriculture, especially during a shortage of trucks during the pandemic, LaJoie said.

It’s impossible the growers found enough tractor-trailers to haul the potatoes, but there happened to be a rail line available that connects to a LaJoie-owned warehouse in Van Buren.

The shortage of truckers has contributed to supply chain issues during the pandemic.

“I don’t see transportation getting better anytime soon,” LaJoie said.

While Maine is known for its famous lobsters, the state was indeed once the nation’s potato capital during World War II. Other states then ramped up production in the 1950s. Idaho and Washington state are currently No. 1 and 2 while Maine ranks ninth, according to the USDA.

Fields are covered with potato plants in bloom Sunday, July 19, 2020, near Fort Fairfield, Maine.
Fields are covered with potato plants in bloom Sunday, July 19, 2020, near Fort Fairfield, Maine.

The unusual shortage of potatoes in the west is the result of strange summer weather.

A heat wave with temperatures exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) hit the Pacific Northwest in June, just as potatoes were starting to sprout. The result was reduced yields and lower quality, Voigt said.

“Factories have kind of shut down,” he said.

Extreme heat reduced yields by nearly 10% for potato growers in Idaho and Washington, while Maine potato yields increased by more than 30% thanks to good weather, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

In northern Maine, the harvest was so large that growers scrambled to find storage. Some buildings at the old Loring Air Base have been drafted in for a last minute home for the plentiful tubers.

Ultimately, it turned out to be a successful pilot program for rail delivery that could be used again if unusual weather conditions persist, LaJoie said. Additionally, Maine enjoyed drawing attention to its potato industry through the irony of David’s aiding the Potato Goliaths.


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