Maine's potato industry is being uprooted
Dec. 23, 1996
PRESQUE ISLE, Maine (AP) _ For four generations, since 1894, the Wathen family grew potatoes in the rocky soil of the bleak, windswept land along the Canadian border. In less than two hours, it was all gone.
With the Wathens deep in debt, the bank foreclosed on the 1,482-acre farm in Aroostook County and sold it in pieces for nearly $719,000 to other potato farmers last week.
For Glendon Wathen and his children, their past and their future slipped away with the bang of an auctioneer's gavel.
``A lot of farmers are scared because they see one of the largest farms up for auction and realize `This could happen to me,''' said Laurie Cothran, Wathen's daughter, who grew up on the farm.
Nearly 250 years after the Scots-Irish began planting potatoes in Maine, the once-thriving industry is being uprooted by competition, declining prices, disease, poor weather and uneven quality.
In the last 50 years, Maine has slipped from first to eighth place in potato production in the United States.
The number of potato farms _ many of them small, family operations _ has been holding steady at about 550, but the acreage devoted to potatoes has dropped. Northern Maine has seen the number of acres planted with potatoes fall from a peak of about 200,000 in the 1930s to barely 75,000 today.
The past few years have been tough, but this year is putting many farmers over the edge financially.
Farmers across the country produced the most potatoes in history this year, sending the price per 100 pounds down to $2 or $3 in Maine, compared with $8 or $9 last year. It cost farmers $6 to grow 100 pounds of spuds.
``The farmers right now are literally giving them away,'' said Mike Corey, executive director of the Maine Potato Board.
Chip Beckwith, who owns a 430-acre farm in Aroostook County and was in Chapter 11 bankruptcy last year, said several farmers and processors have filed for bankruptcy. ``Just about everybody is in the same boat,'' he said.
Maine has always had to compete with growers in the West _ Washington, Wisconsin, Idaho and Colorado. But since the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, it has also had to contend with farmers from Canada.
And while Idaho spends as much as $9 million a year to promote its potatoes, Maine lays out only $200,000.
Disease and poor quality control have also cast a shadow over the industry. Potatoes with bruises and black spots inside and out have made their way to supermarkets, giving Maine potatoes a bad name.
The state began mandatory inspections of all potato shipments this fall. Before then, Maine was the only potato-producing state without such controls.
``It's helped with the consumer confidence knowing they're getting a consistent quality pack of Maine potatoes,'' Corey said. But the cost is borne by the farmers themselves and amounts to tens of thousands of dollars.
Some say the decline is just another cycle in the potato industry's 150-year-old history.
``This is not the beginning of a large mass liquidation of Aroostook County farmers,'' Corey said. ``We had a time in the '80s when there were a lot more auctions. You run through the cycles. You try to survive the cycles. The problems with this one is that it's been a little bit longer cycle.''
Others aren't so sure.
``This is a longterm trend. It's not a cycle. We've been losing acreage for 40 years,'' said Wayne Smith, editor and publisher of the weekly newsletter Mainly Potatoes.
The farmers, an otherwise resilient and independent bunch, are calling on state leaders and federal officials in Washington for help.
Barry Cothran, Wathen's son-in-law, was at least glad to seen the Wathen family holdings sold to Aroostook County farmers, instead of a large potato processor or out-of-state corporation, such as McCain Foods in Canada.
``It's hard to see it go, but it's done,'' Cothran said. ``I hope we've seen the last auction. I hope it doesn't happen for anybody else. The industry can't stand any more hits like this.''