2019 could be banner year for Maine’s potato deal

2019 could be banner year for Maine’s potato deal

This could be the year that East Coast retailers have a new appreciation for Maine potatoes. 

That’s the perspective of Ken Gad, president of Cambridge Farms, South Easton, Mass.

“Maine potato growers have an opportunity this year to really showcase what they have, and that’s something they haven’t had the past few years,” Gad said. 

“Demand has been reasonably steady, the price structure is reasonable and the quality has been excellent so far,” he said.

Most Maine potatoes will be marketed by mid-March, with some marketers extending supply into April, he said. 

“I think we can get these guys in and done by the middle of March.”

As Western U.S. potatoes have had extensive penetration on the East Coast, Gad said that growers in Maine, New York’s Long Island and Virginia have had a harder time maintaining their foothold in East Coast chain stores. 

This year, with shorter crops in Idaho and the Red River Valley, Gad said there is a prime opportunity for Maine to grab attention.

“(Maine) potato growers really have an opportunity to showcase the strides made in quality and the variety choices,” he said. 

“I think they’re doing a really good job putting that quality, that product on the market. I think it’s one of those years where they can open up the eyes of a lot of Eastern retailers,” he said. 

In the same way, he said, it will give retailers the chance to go back to their roots and support a strong community of growers who have dedicated their lives to supplying potatoes to consumers.

Variety diversification 

One of the big draws for Maine is its ability to grow russets, reds, yellows and whites, said Bob Davis, president of the Maine Farmers Exchange, Presque Isle.

“People could come in here and buy all four varieties and put all four varieties on their truck,” he said. 

“That is something other areas don’t have; it has been an advantage to us as we have diversified our acreage,” he said.

The diversification by growers allows them to see higher prices from the niche markets of red and yellow-fleshed potatoes.

“They’ve been able to keep their average prices up a little bit because they’ve been able to grow all four varieties,” he said.

The short crop of Red River Valley round red potatoes could lead to higher prices this year, Davis said. At the same time, Maine potato farmers will be motivated to keep their long-term customers supplied well.

“The reds will be in demand and we’ve had people (who) have never bought reds here before (and) are trying to buy trying to reds,” he said. 

“We’re trying to hold onto our people who’ve been buying reds from us for the last 15 years; we don’t want to lose them as customers because when the Red River Valley gets a good crop next year.”

Davis said Maine potatoes continue to expand their appeal, especially the caribou russet. 

“The new caribou russet has been well accepted in the markets that we are going to, and the acreage continues to increase,” he said. 

While the russet burbank is grown mostly for processing in Maine, he said the caribou russet can be used for processing and the fresh market. Seed supplies for the caribou have to be built up, but Davis said the variety produces good quality and better shape for the fresh market than the russet burbank.

About 50,000 acres of potatoes are planted in Maine, and Davis said perhaps 30,000 acres go to processing buyers McCains and Cavendish, with the rest of the acreage divided among seed, chip stock and table stock.

Gad said white potatoes have lost their dominance in Maine and the entire Eastern growing region and may trail russets, reds and yellows in importance.
“I would say that Prince Edward Island grows more whites than Maine; Maine has gone heavily to russets,” he said, noting processing demand for russets. 
“It seems like the whites have remained more popular during the summer and they have faded in the winter.”

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