April 05, 2020

Extended potato harvest strains growers

ST. AGATHA – Huge mounds of potatoes grew quickly Saturday afternoon as truckload after truckload of fresh spuds were put into storage at an Edwin Pelletier and Sons Inc. storage facility along the eastern shore of Long Lake.

Across the lake, two company harvesters were digging the last of many fields, a task that started 21 days ago. With any luck, Jim Pelletier hoped, his crew of 26 would be out of the fields by Sunday afternoon. It has not been an easy harvest.

Rain, earth-drying time and frost extended this year’s harvest for too many days. Last year the harvest was completed in 11.5 days. This year, Pelletier said, workers were anxious to get done.

Most Aroostook County schools have reopened from harvest break or will open today, but the work goes on with adults running the machinery.

Trees lining the perimeter of fields have started showing their leafless branches, the leaves of red, yellow, green and gold gone to the rain and wind.

Mild weather has been predicted through midweek, and many Aroostook County potato growers will be 7able to put an end to the annual chore. Maine growers had as much as 59,000 acres of potatoes to harvest when the job started last month.

Some growers have finished the work for this fall; others, such as Pelletier, finished Sunday or will do so within the next couple of days. Still others will be out in the fields another week or two, depending on the number of acres they have and the varieties they planted.

The Pelletiers grow tablestock potatoes, round whites only. They depend on the open market for prices. Growers that sell processing potatoes know their prices ahead of time. Contracts with processors usually are signed before the crop is in the ground in the spring.

“We harvested a nice crop,” Pelletier said while watching his crew at the potato storage facility. “Hopefully, we will get decent prices.

“These are nice,” he said. taking a handful of spuds off the growing pile. “We had no blight, no disease. We had a good spraying program.”

Pelletier said the yield was good.

While the fields being harvested and the storage shed were within eyesight of each other across Long Lake, truckers had to traverse nearly 12 miles of road to get the potatoes from the harvesters to the shed.

While Jim Pelletier was at the storage facility, brothers Phil and Danny were in the fields. Phil operated a windrow machine, while Danny operated a harvester.

After their harvest is done, Jim Pelletier said, it would take a few weeks to collect all of their harvesting equipment, clean it, make needed repairs and store it.

He expected shipping could start two weeks after the harvest is completed.

Last year was a good year for growers like the Pelletiers. Table stock potatoes fetched good prices, not like the previous two years when the price for their hard work was less than the cost of production.

Industry officials have said it is still too early to forecast prices. Reports on quality have been good through the harvest.

The North American Potato Market News, an industry newsletter, said last month that Maine has 59,000 acres of potatoes in the ground, up about 1,500 acres from last year’s 57,500 acres.

They estimated the yield at 295 hundredweight an acre, up about 15 percent from last year’s production. The Maine industry’s record was 310 cwt an acre in 2004.

At the outset of the harvest last month, Don Flannery, executive director of the Maine Potato Board, said he did not see the market as “overburdened with supply.”

That’s a good indication that growers could get good prices to back up the good year in 2005.

While the Aroostook County industry had some late blight, it was not a huge problem. Flannery said growers “did a great job” with their spraying programs.

In 2005, the Maine potato industry had the smallest acreage it has had since the late 1880s with just more than 57,000 acres.

The North American Potato Market News has forecast lower production nationwide. Fall states, like Maine, were believed to be having a flat year.

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