Maine farmers hope that growing better potatoes can help the industry deal with a warmer climate

From his pickup truck, Robbie Irving points to the extensive irrigation system that supplies water to hundreds of acres of crops on the Caribou potato farm his family has harvested since 1936.

Irving’s grandfather started the system decades ago, and Irving said it has proven vital as temperatures in Aroostook County have gotten hotter and drier.

“His whole life was building pond after pond after pond. He could almost see this coming — that we would need irrigation,” Irving said.

This need was particularly acute two years ago, when the state experienced severe drought. While potatoes are Maine’s most profitable crop, with crops valued at more than $200 million last year, many farms have struggled in 2020.

“My uncle described it as putting a Band-Aid on a bullet hole,” Irving said. “No matter how much water you pump, it won’t do what mother nature can give you.”

This story is part of our series “Climate-driven: A deep dive into Maine’s response, one county at a time.”

Don Flannery, executive director of the Maine Potato Council, said the drought is a wake-up call for many growers who realize they need to prepare for extreme weather.

“I think it got a lot of attention from growers,” Flannery said. “I mean, we dug about a little more than half the crop in 2020. I mean, it was dry.”

Flannery said mild winters and warmer summers are generally not bad for growers. In fact, some say they help extend the season by a few days and produce a more productive crop.

But Flannery said growers are taking steps to adapt to the heat, including rotating crops to reduce soil stress. And Flannery estimates that about a third of Maine’s potato crop now receives supplemental irrigation, far more than a few years ago — but at a cost that may be prohibitive for some.

Greg Porter 7.JPG

Robbie Feinberg

/

Maine Public

At the Presque Isle research farm run by Greg Porter of the University of Maine, 45,000 different varieties of potatoes are grown in a greenhouse. Each variety will be planted in a nearby field.

“So, you know, it’s a real balancing act,” Flannery said. “I don’t know if anyone has figured it out. But if they have, they’re not telling me.”

One of the biggest tools the industry sees as a way to increase crop sustainability can be found at the Presque Isle research farm run by the University of Maine, where Greg Porter leads the university’s potato breeding and variety development program. According to Porter, one of the main goals is to create a potato that tastes better, but is stronger, more durable.

“Whether it’s high temperatures or extreme humidity, it’s a crop that can have a lot of impact. [those factors],” Porter said. “And it’s a crop that’s also associated with a lot of insect and disease pests that are climate-related.”

To create better potatoes, Porter and his team cross-pollinate different potato varieties with specific, desirable traits. The team will then grow each of the 45,000 individual cultivars from these combinations each year in a greenhouse, then plant them in the field.

Porter will then walk the field row by row to see how each of the 45,000 species fared.

Greg Porter 10.JPG

Robbie Feinberg

/

Maine Public

Greg Porter shows off potatoes grown at the Presque Isle research farm where Porter’s team is working to produce the next generation of potatoes.

“At the end of the growing season, we put them all down and select the ones that have the most desirable appearance, disease freedom, things like that,” Porter said. “Just a visual choice.”

Porter eventually selects about 1,000 of those varieties to plant next year. By the third year, the plants are down to about 300, and they are shipped to farms in places like North Carolina and Florida, which have warmer climates similar to what Maine may see in the future.

“Warmer days, warmer nights, sometimes more trouble with pests,” Porter said. “So this is one way we can select for greater stress tolerance.”

But finding that coveted potato is a process that could take a decade or more, Porter said. Still, the process has led to new varieties that have helped some farmers adapt and grow their businesses.

At his farm in Caribou, Irving tours the massive packing facility he recently built to store a special variety of potato: the Caribou Russet.

Robbie Irving 2.JPG

Robbie Feinberg

/

Maine Public

Farmer Robbie Irving stands inside a packing plant originally created for the Caribou Russet variety of potato at a nearby UMaine research farm.

“And this is a direct result of all of Greg Porter’s hard work. This bottling facility is designed specifically for Caribou Russet,” says Irving.

The new variety started on a research farm run by Porter and was released to the public in 2015. Irving raves about potatoes: good flavor, nice color and good for frying and mashing.

And the main thing is that potatoes are also resistant to drought. This has helped Irving’s farm continue production even in drier weather. Add it all up, Irving said, and customers clamored for it at grocery stores across New England.

“So all these people were emailing us and specifically asking for Caribou Russets. They didn’t want anything else. They wanted Caribou Russets,” Irving said.

Irving says this kind of success gives him confidence that even if the weather changes, with a little help, growers can continue to thrive.

Leave a Comment