About 60 percent of the potatoes produced in Maine and around the country are grown to supply the food service industries. But with everything from school cafeterias to sports concessions to in-flight meals canceled, potato farmers are facing uncertain times in what is already an uncertain business. And many say that they are discouraged by what they are being offered by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in a federal aid package.
If you have ever flown on Jet Blue and eaten some of the airline's signature blue potato chips as a snack, then you have eaten a potato grown by Dominic LaJoie.
"One-third of our business is for the blue chips."
That is a sizable chunk for the 1300 acre family farm in Van Buren, just a short paddle over the river from Canada. LaJoie is the Vice President of the National Potato Council, and he belongs to the fourth of five generations to farm the same acreage in the St. John Valley.
The front of the business is a reminder of that heritage. Old forks and barrels used by LaJoie's grandparents are on display. We are not allowed to enter the modern workings of the plant at this time, due to concerns over health and safety, but from the outside you can see seed potatoes rumble down a conveyor belt, into waiting trucks below.
And while the airline market is in trouble, LaJoie has been careful not put all his potatoes in one basket. The business is spread among the processed, fresh produce and the seed markets, which he says may buffer him from some of the financial hits many other farms are taking.
"Growers tend to stick with one sector of the industry and base their operation of the farm on that sector,” he says. “And so if you're not diverse, and don't have options, it's going to be a struggle."
And then there's the timing issue. Potato growers like LaJoie hammer out sales contracts each spring with buyers such as chip and fry makers, grocery stores and so on. Then, based on the buyers' orders, the farmer plans what varieties and how much to grow, with payment on delivery. But right now LaJoie says those buyers are not buying.
"We base our budget on receiving income based on these contracts, and the timeline has changed,” he says. “So obviously if you're running a business on borrowed money, which is mostly what small businesses do, and your income timeframe changes, then you're going to pay more interest on that money you've borrowed. So you lose on that side as well."
About an hour and a half down Route 1 in Houlton, Erica Fitzpatrick-Peabody, who grows mostly for the processing market, is both thanking and cursing the Maine weather for bringing spring snows to the county as recently as mid-May. That snow has made the soil mushy and cold and delayed planting for the 2020 crop, which must go in despite the financial upheavals affecting the 2019 crop.
But it has also helping in its own way. When May arrived, Fitzpatrick-Peabody realized she was facing a 6 million pound pile of unsold potatoes in her storage shed that should not have been there.
"It's still there, and it's likely to be there for a bit,” says Fitzpatrick-Peabody. “So, we took our loader and we filled this area full of snow. We're not going to give up. We're not going to sit here and wait for a miracle. There are things we can do to extend the shelf life of these potatoes."
Fitzpatrick-Peabody says the snow-cooled spuds will survive until the cooling equipment she has been obliged to order — another unexpected cost — can arrive. She is also using products to prevent them from sprouting, but the longer they sit, the bigger her losses will be.
She is already planning to reduce new acreage this season by about 10 percent.
"We don't know the impact yet — it's going to take a while."
Don Flannery, the executive director of the Maine Potato Board, says it is hard to predict the final losses because no one knows what the market will do, whether food service will rebound fast enough, whether events will go forward, or whether further outbreaks of COVID-19 will cause more upheaval.
"We know already that, in most cases, they're not going to open up and have full capacity in these restaurants where people are going to show up at the numbers that they were, so we know it's going to be a slower, uphill trudge uphill to get back up to the volume we were at."
Another question yet to be answered, says Flannery, is whether potato growers will feel much positive impact from federal relief measures.
So far, Congress has approved a buyout program, through which the USDA would purchase $3 billion in various surplus meat, dairy and crops for a food box program. About $461 million of that is set aside for fresh fruits and vegetables.
Then there are the direct payouts to farmers, which growers have been waiting for. Farmers can apply for this part of the aid starting on May 26 until August 28. For that program, the USDA is allocating $2.1 billion for what it terms "specialty crops." That includes potatoes, along with most all other produce you would find at the store. Under this section of the aid plan, potato farmers nationwide will be offered one penny per pound of product that sat in storage from mid January to mid April.
But the relief payout amounts to $1 per hundredweight, which Flannery says is not nearly enough to make an impact for growers who may have lost much of their income for the year. He predicts that Maine farmers could be left with more than 100 million hundredweight of unsold spuds. And he is worried that with virtually every crop nationwide — from avocados to zucchini, — all clamoring for the same $2 billion, any payout is likely to be thinner than a kettle cooked potato chip.
In Van Buren, LaJoie says the industry was already facing down fickle weather, blights and low-carb diets before coronavirus came along. With the average age of a farmer now standing at 58, LaJoie says he is worried about the future.
"Is this going to entice younger generations to step in? Not when times are like this,” he says. “There's got to be more stability and more financial stability for young people to want to step in and do this kind of work."
This interview is part of our series “Deep Dive: Coronavirus.” For more in the series, visit mainepublic.org/coronavirus.
Originally posted 5:28 p.m. Thursday, May 21, 2020. Updated 8:41 a.m. Saturday, May 23, 2020.