It was supposed to be a great year for Maine potatoes. Last year's harvest was strong, and this year should have seen about 3,000 new acres brought into production, but the sudden arrival of COVID-19 has changed all that.
Food service, from restaurants to school cafeterias to fairs and events, buy about 60 percent of Maine's potatoes, but with an economic slow down and the cancellation of events, millions of pounds of potatoes — 200 hundred million hundred weight according to the industry — are just sitting in storage across Aroostook County.
Don Flannery, executive director of the Maine Potato Board, spoke with Maine Public’s Jennifer Mitchell about the problem.
Ed note: transcript has been edited for length and clarity
Mitchell: For those of us who maybe can't envision what 200 million hundredweight of potatoes looks like, can you put that into some sort of perspective for us?
Flannery: It'd be 20 million, 10-pound pound bags of potatoes.
Well, that's that's still hard to envision, but we'll just consider that that is a very large pile of potatoes. How big of a problem is that for each farmer who has a share of that sitting in there in their sheds?
Well, when we looked at the 2019 crop after harvest, we had a nice crop, good quality, and it all had a place to go. So now you start looking at an individual grower, no matter how many you know, how much he produces, how many acres he has, how much he produces. He has that volume, whatever that may be, sitting in his warehouse. And that means he's not going to get paid for that.
Why not? I thought the point of having a yearly contract was that the farmer could plan ahead before even planting the first potato in the spring to have an assurance that the crop would have a buyer.
Now the contract — you're right. The contracts are usually negotiated in early spring, so before you plant. And they are paid when they deliver to the plant. There's quality clauses and many things in a contract, so you don't get paid upfront when you sign the contract.
So we're talking about potatoes still left from the 2019 harvest. But now we're embarking on the 2020 crop. Contracts are presumably being hammered out again. So what are you hearing about price and volume?
I don't suspect the price will change a lot. It probably will not be down. But volume wise, I'm safe in saying that today we're probably looking at a 16 percent cut in acres, maybe a little more than that, we don't know yet.
How big of a deal is 16 percent?
16 percent, 5000, probably closer to 6000 acres.
So the new crop is being impacted already, really before it's even been planted. And last year's crop, the one that's just sort of sitting there in sheds at the moment, what is being done with that? What can be done with it?
Here in Maine as well as everywhere, we're looking at all potential opportunities to put these potatoes to good, to somebody, for whatever — whether it's a processing or a fresh market. The fresh market can only absorb so much product. Packers here in Maine as well as in other areas have been diligently working to get them into food pantries and feeding organizations. And you'll see that packing sheds here in Maine were usually done packing fresh potatoes to the supermarkets by the end of May. I think you'll see them extend as much as possible to keep moving those into the fresh market. But there's only so much volume we're going to put in that fresh market right now within. They're starting to harvest potatoes in Florida coming up the east coast. Those are a lot of fresh potatoes. Those are going to be in the market. So you've got those people that planted a crop, they're coming in the market. The pipeline's only so big. So you can only put so many potatoes through that.
Does this mean that some of those potatoes are actually going to go uneaten or are they going to be wasted?
What you'll probably see in Maine are some of these potatoes will go out on approved sites, where they'll be piled up and tarped over — and they'll rot at that point. And it's very discouraging. It's not what we want to do with our crops, but there's no place to go with them.