Seeds They Sow: The Potato Harvest in Maine

The seed potato business in Maine is still about kin, confidence and connecting directly to customers. Visit with Massey Ferguson enthusiast Bob Bartlett as he harvests seed potatoes on his farm in Aroostook County, Maine.

By Jamie Cole | Photos By Jamie Cole, Paul Cyr, Ken Lamb & Becky Shea

It is day three of a three-week potato harvest in Littleton, Maine, in the heart of Aroostook County, which is itself the heart of Maine’s leading and still-thriving agricultural pursuit. In one of Bob Bartlett’s fields—“the rockiest one,” he tells us—a harvester rattles and hums while workers stand at the top of the machine’s conveyor and hand-separate chaff from the diminutive seed potatoes, fresh out of the ground.

The harvester chokes out dirt, debris and rocks, flinging it all 30 yards or more across already-harvested rows. As a writer and photographer traverse the windrows of the just-dug tubers awaiting pickup by the harvester, a 40-year veteran of the harvest shouts a warning. “Keep back, way back,” says Randy Cole, who has dug potatoes with Bartlett Farms since he was 14 years old. “Them rocks out of that blower will take your head clean off.”

Writer and photographer heed.

As the day winds down, Bob meets briefly with Randy and other workers, mapping out the next day before sending them home. As one of the ladies who works sorting debris from tubers writes her name for the photographer, her hand is still shaking from the grind of the harvester, more than half an hour after stepping off the conveyor.

The potato harvest is dirty, difficult work.

Bob and David Bartlett

Bob and David Bartlett

But not like it used to be, remembers David Bartlett, Bob’s son and business partner of more than 30 years. “The schools used to get out during harvest time … they’d cancel three to four weeks and let the kids work on the farms to get the potatoes out,” he says. When Bob started farming in the 1950s, the industry was transitioning from digging by hand and tossing into barrels to digging by machine. Bob was one of the first in the region to dig six rows at a time by machine, and he remembers the neighboring farmers coming out to watch.

Now, other larger farms in the area pick up as many as 20 rows at a time by machine—“it’s unreal,” he says. At around 250 acres of seed potatoes, Bob says he and David are midsize compared to other growers in Aroostook County, Maine’s largest county by area and its largest producer of potatoes. “We’re kinda unique up here,” says Bob, adding there’s not much to do but dig potatoes and cut lumber.

While processing and table stock are the mainstays of the industry in Maine and North America in general, seed potatoes make up one-fifth of the production in Maine and 100% of the Bartletts’ business.

Potatoes grown for seed and those grown for fries and chips (process) or the produce department at your grocer (table stock) have only subtle differences. Seed stock is grown only to a range of 1.5 to 3.25 inches in diameter before each potato is harvested and stored or shipped. Seed stock also undergoes a more rigorous inspection process, both in the field and after harvest. Disease or fungus issues that wouldn’t affect process or table stock spuds can be the ruin of a seed crop; customers who buy the seed stock need to trust that it is disease-free and otherwise ready for propagation.

The working fleet of Massey Ferguson® tractors run the potato windrowers.

The working fleet of Massey Ferguson® tractors run the potato windrowers.

Northern Maine is suited for the seed potatoes in practical ways. The shorter growing season works since the crop doesn’t stay in the ground as long. The harsh winter keeps volunteer plants from sprouting and holds down disease and pest concerns. The cold is also perfect for storage of the harvested stock.

The seed potato business suits the Bartletts too. When David joined his father in the family business in 1980, they transitioned out of the table and process, and went completely to seed. “If you’re going with seed, then you’re going directly to a farmer who wants your potato,” says David. “It’s a whole lot easier to go deal directly with someone who actually wants your potato.” Bob says demand for seed rarely wanes, meaning there aren’t many price fluctuations. Compare that to table and process, where a bumper crop can bottom out prices in a hurry.

While seed potato growers like Bartlett Farms are a source of seed for table and process growers, seed farmers must also source their potatoes. In Maine, much of the foundation seed comes from an isolated, meticulously maintained farm in Masardis called Porter Seed Farm, run by the Maine Potato Board. The Bartletts purchase foundation seed there, but potatoes are one of the few commercial crops remaining where seed is saved over from previous crops. Maine has a “generation law,” says Bob, that requires seed stock not go past field year six to protect the quality of the seed. Bartlett Farms doesn’t push past field year five for their customers.

Foundation or saved seed tubers are cut two to four times depending on their size, and planted closer together than their table and process counterparts, usually 7 inches apart. Bob says when he plants 1 acre, he expects enough seed to sell to farmers to plant 8 acres for table and process. Since the plant population is more dense, 300 hundredweight (cwt) per acre is considered a fine yield for seed.

The topside plant grows and blossoms into whites, pinks and purples in late July and August.

The topside plant grows and blossoms into whites, pinks and purples in late July and August.

Most farmers in Aroostook County have the crop in the ground by June 10. Cultivation mostly involves “hilling,” ensuring the tuber is completely covered and out of the sun. The topside plant grows and blossoms into whites, pinks and purples in late July and August, an explosion of color every bit as impressive as the birch, aspens, poplars and maples that bring the tourists to Maine in autumn.

The display lasts for a few weeks before the vines start to die down. When Bob first started farming, the topside vines would be lopped off. Today, much like defoliation in other crops, the vines are sprayed with a drying agent to speed up the wilt. By the time harvest begins in early September, the vines are brown and flat.

The Bartletts’ two-row harvester follows windrowers, which dig six additional rows and lay them over, so Bob gets eight rows total in one trip. For the size of their seed operation, he says that works well. “We’re happy with where we are,” he says.

After harvest, the seed is almost completely direct-marketed. Most of it is promised before it goes in the ground. The Bartletts typically grow around 15 varieties, but will try something new if a farmer-customer asks for it. It’s a business that relies on connections and direct communication with customers, and David says his father is great at it. “He’s the mouthpiece,” says David. “It basically relies on Dad’s reputation he built over the years.” Bob served on the U.S. Potato Board and on the Maine Potato Board, and built that reputation through quality product. Some 7 million pounds of seed are grown and shipped from Bartlett Farms to destinations all up and down the Eastern seaboard, much of it going to Florida.

Bob claims he’s “retired,” and David does run the farming part of the business now, but says, “Dad will never retire. We’ve seen the effects of what retirement does to family members …” He trails off, not finishing the thought, as if not wanting to even think of it. “If Dad wasn’t here, we probably wouldn’t be farming,” he says finally. “We need each other in this business. He can say the same to me, and I can say the same to him.” And that family connection continues with John, David’s son, who is “the mechanic,” says David. “He loves that right there. He loves working on the tractors.”

There are larger farms in Aroostook County—up to a few thousand acres—but even those are family-run and rely mostly on direct markets. Though smaller in size and production than some of the more heavily promoted growing regions—“You know, Idaho does a great job of advertising,” says Bob—Maine potatoes are known not just for their quality but for the families who grow them; so much so that it’s explicitly mentioned in the Maine Potato Board’s annual report. “Growing potatoes in Maine has more to do with family, faith …. In spite of the challenges facing our industry,” it says, “it will continue because those who are involved in it love it.”

See the video of Bob Barlett’s vintage Massey collection >>