Maine's potato growers don't have a whole lot to celebrate at the moment; a major processing contract negotiated by a growers' bargaining council resulted in disappointingly low figures. Maine's spud crop last year was worth almost $170 million dollars and potato farmers cultivated some 54,000 acres, most of that in Aroostook County. But fewer acres will be planted this year, and with a chilly, wet spring in northern Maine, 2014 could be a tough one for many growers of Maine's iconic tuber.
Potato growers across Maine have known that their crop has been losing ground for years. And they suspected that this year, they might suffer some "downward adjustment" in both price and volume.
"Obviously growers didn't want to see either," says Don Flannery, executive director of the Maine Potato Board. But they're also realistic. Flannery says farmers know that the region's big processors like Canada's McCain Foods are selling fewer french fries these days. Still, the new contract cuts were surprising.
"I don't think anybody thought that there would a potential of a downside of 20 percent in the volume," Flannery said.
That means that McCain will be buying 20 percent fewer Maine potatoes for its fry operations this season -- although the actual number of pounds the company plans to buy is a secret. And the company, which declined to be interviewed for this story, will pay less. Last year, a farmer was given $10.35 for every 100 pounds of potatoes. This season, farmers will receive just $9.87. But it's not just Maine farmers taking a hit. Flannery says potato growers are having it rough from here to Manitoba. And McCain Foods just announced this month that it will hold off on a planned $100 million dollar expansion of a processing facility in Idaho. Flannery says it's not hard to see why.
"What we eat has changed -- what they call the center of the plate," he says. "You know you probably are going to see more potatoes on the plate if there's a piece of meat in the middle of the plate."
But with more emphasis on fish and green vegetables, potatoes have lost a lot of real estate on dinner plates across the country. Flannery says farmers will have to survive by extending crop rotations, and looking at other, more saleable vegetables to grow.
The outlook is less bleak for snack food suppliers. Demand has grown in recent years for kettle-type potato chips, with sales of Frito-Lay's Natural Brand chips jumping 229 percent in 2012. While chip makers are also paying farmers about 5 percent less this year, chip-potato sales are expected to remain flat. Jason Woollard from County Superspuds in Mars Hill, grows, buys, and resells potatoes to companies such as Frito-Lay, Utz, and Cape Cod. While french fries are usually processed in the communities where the potatoes are grown and then shipped all around the world, chips, he says, are more perishable and are processed right where they're sold.
"It's a large population. I mean you have Boston, you have Providence, you have New York City, and we do get down some into Philadelphia in that area," he says. "The population helps keep the volume steady, because the population in the Northeast is fairly steady."
In addition to lower prices, there's another factor making conditions more challenging for Aroostook County farmers: the weather. The winter was a long one, planting is slightly behind schedule, and if the spring continues to be cold and wet, growers are going to be watching the ground for signs of fungal problems such as blight. Don Flannery with the potato board says farmers across the area will be planting about 4,500 fewer acres than normal due to the contract. And, he says, with less money coming in for each of those orders, every grower is hoping for a big break from Mother Nature.