PORTLAND, Maine ( Associated Press) – Maine’s potato growers had such a good harvest last season that they stepped in to help their big brothers in the west who were in short supply of spuds.
Farmers from Maine sent potatoes by rail for the first time in four decades this winter thanks to a strong crop in the state and heat and dry weather that halted farmers in well-known potato-growing states like Idaho and Washington. The potatoes made their way more than 2,500 miles (4,000 kilometers) for processing, in climate-controlled train carriages.
A total of 21 million pounds (9.5 million kilograms) of potatoes, virtually all from producers in northern Maine, flowed through a rail-linked warehouse owned by LaJoie Growers LLC. That equates to more than 530 truckloads of potatoes, co-owner Jay LaJoie said.
“It’s a good piece of potato,” said Don Flannery, executive director of the Maine Potato Board.
Most of the Maine potatoes went to processors in Washington state, where many of the fries and other products are exported. The shipments to Idaho were tubers, including Maine’s Caribou auburn, which will be planted this spring.
Chris Voigt of the Washington State Potato Commission said processors were grateful for the potato shipments, but they hope Maine producers’ services are not needed in the future.
The shipments came to an early end about two weeks ago, partying due to economic disruptions caused by the war in Ukraine. But it was good while it lasted, and helped potato processors in western states while reducing an oversupply of Maine spuds.
It also proved the value of railroads for agriculture, especially during a shortage of trucks in the pandemic, LaJoie said.
There is no way that producers could have procured enough tractor trailers to transport the potatoes, but there happened to be an available railway line joining a warehouse owned by LaJoie in Van Buren.
The shortage of truck drivers has contributed to supply chain problems during the pandemic.
“I do not see transportation getting better any time soon,” LaJoie said.
While Maine is known for its famous lobster, the state was indeed once the country’s potato capital through World War II. Other states later increased production in the 1950s. Idaho and Washington State are currently numbers 1 and 2 while Maine ranks ninth, according to the USDA.
The unusual shortage of potatoes in the west is the result of strange summer weather.
A heat wave with temperatures rising above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) hit the Pacific Northwest in June, just as potatoes began to grow. The result was reduced yields and lower quality, Voigt said.
“The plants kind of closed,” he said.
Extreme heat has reduced yields by nearly 10% for potato growers in Idaho and Washington, while Maine potato yields have grown more than 30% thanks to good weather, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In northern Maine, the harvest was so great that growers scrambled to find storage space. Some buildings at the former Loring Air Force Base have been designated as a last-minute home for the abundant tubers.
In the end, it turned out to be a successful rail delivery pilot program that could be reused if unusual weather patterns persisted, LaJoie said. On top of that, Maine enjoyed getting attention for its potato industry thanks to the irony of David helping the Goliaths potato.