Tuesday, May 6, 2014

A Maine Gazetteer: Aroostook potato fields

The fame of Maine’s other big crop, the potato, has waned since its glory days. It has a similar number of acres under cultivation as the blueberry does, about 60,000, and is worth somewhat more in economic impact. Its fields can be equally beautiful: the plants blossom massively and pinkly in spring, and in the fall, in the several weeks between removing the visible plants and digging the fruit, the fields are a gorgeous palette of contoured “hills” in browns and greens. But the potato has keenly suffered from competition.
Technology has conquered regional advantages. Potatoes are now stored in refrigerated warehouses and suffused with a gaseous sprout inhibitor and can be held indefinitely. Thus, the words “Maine” and “Idaho” mean little anymore; Aroostook County, once the largest producer in the world, is no longer anything special and has fallen to eighth in the nation in production. It’s all about price, and potatoes grown all over the world have become barely distinguishable from each other, just fodder for fast-food franchises.
But this is one industry that seems determined that technology and marketing will not leave it behind. It touts: GPS for “precision agriculture” (whatever that means), digital imaging to grade potatoes, huge harvesters, high-tech storage techniques that preserve spuds for a year, the marketing of Maine potatoes for seed, “adding value” locally, i.e., produce fries and chips near the farms, those little purple “heirloom” potatoes, new uses like vodka and hand-made chips, and in a nice irony, the first state to export seed potatoes to South America, where the potato originated. It seems to be working for now, but the potato has become a commodity, and the way of life it used to represent in Maine – the family involvement, local color, festivals and traditions, the school holidays in September during harvest – is almost gone, replaced by something approaching the agri-business corn fields of the Midwest.



Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
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