September 2, 2012

Lack of rain stunts Maine's potato crop

By Edward D. Murphy
Staff Writer

Last summer, Maine potato farmers were dealt too much rain, which led to blight and rot.

This year, the farmers are struggling with the opposite extreme -- too little rain, which is stunting the potatoes' growth and will hit farmers' wallets hard this fall.

Just like the corn crop in the Midwest, Maine potatoes are withering, but they're underground and out of sight, so how poorly they're doing is a bit of a guessing game.

The crop, most of which will be harvested this month, is expected to be smaller than normal, both in total yield and the size of the individual potatoes. That means not only fewer potatoes to sell, but also a loss of premiums -- bonuses that processors pay for potatoes that are larger or heavier than normal and are particularly attractive to french fry producers.

Those premiums are the key to a profitable season.

"We won't get any of those bonuses," lamented Matt Porter, who farms about 700 acres on plots between Washburn and Presque Isle and said he expects that, at best, he will break even this year.

Porter's not alone in fretting about the crop. Farmers all across Aroostook County, particularly the southern part of the county, are preparing for a poor harvest when they begin pulling potatoes from the ground next month.

June was wetter than normal and so far, the rainfall for the year is actually running a little ahead of average, said meteorologist Rich Norton of the National Weather Service's Caribou office.

However, just 1.73 inches of rain fell in July, less than half the average, he said. Into the last week of August, only about 2 inches had fallen for the month, and the average for the month is more than 3 inches.

Farmers also note the rain has been particularly spotty, with some areas missing out entirely when showers have moved through. For instance, in July, when Caribou reported 1.73 inches of rain, a University of Maine gauge in Presque Isle -- only about 15 miles away -- recorded just 0.4 inches.

The timing of the lack of rain was critical, with July and August being the time that most potatoes bulk up.

Russet Burbank potatoes -- the variety prized by potato processors -- go through about 0.2 inches of water a day, said Steven Johnson, a crop specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. Without that vital moisture, some plants die; and those that survive produce smaller potatoes.

Bruce Flewelling, of Flewelling Farms in Easton, said he lost about 200 of his 900 acres of potatoes to the drought and unusual warmth.

"They just burned up, dried up," Flewelling said.

Last year's rain caused some potatoes to rot in the warehouses, he said. This year's dry weather means warehouses won't be as full.

"It's a one-two punch," Flewelling said. "It's just one extreme to another, and boy, that's rough."

Flewelling said he has irrigation on about 25 percent of his crop, and that helped save fields he was able to water. He hopes to add irrigation for another 100 acres before next summer, but he doesn't have access to enough water to go beyond that.

Porter said irrigation is expensive. He said the federal government provides some financial help, but only to upgrade inefficient irrigation systems, not for installing new ones.

To be eligible, he said, laughing, he'd have to put in an inefficient system and then wait five years to apply for aid to pay for a more efficient one. So he relies on Mother Nature, who hasn't been too reliable lately,

Gregory Porter, a professor in the University of Maine's department of plant, soil, and environmental sciences and -- this being close-knit Aroostook County -- Matt Porter's uncle, said no more than 25 to 30 percent of Maine's potato fields are irrigated, either because of cost or a lack of access to adequate water.

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