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 U.S. Department of Agriculture in a federal aid package.
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 JetBlue 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 1,300-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.
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 said 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 said. “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 said those buyers are not buying.
Federal relief measures
A question that has yet to be answered 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 pay-outs to farmers, which growers have been waiting for. Farmers can apply for this part of the aid starting on May 26 until Aug. 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.