Ideal weather produces good Maine potato crop
Bob Davis, vice president of Maine Farmers Exchange, said the weather in the Northeast during the Maine potato growing season was perfect. “I call it ‘pushbutton’ weather,” he said. “Every time we needed a little rain, we got it. During May and June, it would dry out a bit and then we would get the perfect amount of rain.”
Davis said yields were good on all varieties. “The crop is not as big as last year and the yields weren’t quite as good, but they are above average,” he said.
He added that it was a bit difficult to get a great read on this year’s Maine crop because the early acreage numbers appear to be inaccurate. “In the spring, the USDA estimated we had 60,000 acres compared to 53,000 the year before,” he said. “Most of us thought we might have been up a little bit but not that much.”
When the crop was harvested and put in storage, the final acre figure was again around the 53,000 acre level. Davis said that has some folks scratching their head, wondering what happened to those 7,000 “extra” acres. But at the end of the day, he said it is a good crop with a good market.
“The market is good for just about any variety and any size you have,” he said, adding that “these are prices that growers can make money at.”
In fact, across the board, Davis reported farmers seem to be having a pretty good year. He noted that potatoes do best as a rotation crop being grown on the same land one year out of every three. During the other two years, growers plant such crops as broccoli, barley, alfalfa and clover to help the soil. Most of those crops have a good market so, on average, Maine growers are making out pretty well this season.
Turning specifically to the table stock potatoes that Maine specializes in, Davis said demand is good and expects it to stay high for the entire 2022/23 season. He noted that processing potato stocks are down which will put upward pressure on the table stock price. If the retail price can stay at $4.99 for a five pound bag, he said potatoes should move briskly and there will be good returns all season.
Davis did say that the five-pounder has become the pack of choice for retailers and thus it is the pack that dominates the portfolio of most Maine packers. “We do lots of five pounders and a handful of 10s,” he said. “There is not much demand for three or four pounders.”
He noted that the demand for reds, yellows and russets continues to increase as round white demand declines. “Round white demand is gradually declining, and it will soon become a niche potato for some growers,” he predicted.
He added that MFX growers do have some specialty potatoes, including organics and fingerlings, but those are few and far between. “The problem with organics is that Maine has very strict laws for our organic production – stricter than other states – so they are more expensive to grow than in other states.”
Looking a bit further down the road, Davis expects Maine acreage to increase over the next few years and to truly hit the 60,000 acre figure that once was common. He said with Idaho cutting back its processed potato acreage, he expects Maine growers to increase their production.
He did note that labor is an issue in Maine with more growers looking at automation to help them dig, handle and pack their crops.
Davis is bullish on the potato market for the foreseeable future. He believes the current strong FOB price will last through this season and into the next one. He reasoned that there is a short supply of seed potatoes meaning growers won’t be able to overplant as they are often apt to do after a good marketing year. “You can’t increase your acreage, if you can’t find seed potatoes,” he quipped. “I think that will help keep our prices good for the next couple of years. And we can see one again that when ‘we plant less, we make more’.”
As far as Presque Isle-based Maine Farmers Exchange is concerned, the biggest company news is that Dan Peers is now its president. “Dan has taken over many of the day to day operational decisions,” Davis said.
Peers, who is an Army veteran, is 45 years old and has been involved in the potato industry in Aroostook County and Western New Brunswick for the past 20 years. He has been with MFX for 10 years. He and his father owned and operated a potato packing shed before coming to MFX. Peers is married and has two children.