Maine: An Encyclopedia
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Potatoes

I saw mountains of potatoes–oceans–more potatoes than you would think
the world’s population could consume in a hundred years.

–Steinbeck

Potato Pickers (c. 1950)

Potato Pickers (c. 1950)

These girls, probably in the 1950’s, had been hand-picking potatoes, then carrying their baskets to the barrels. The small card, or “ticket” on each barrel identifies the picker by number. The number of completed barrels determined the picker’s pay.

In 1960 John Steinbeck noted, “The women and girls wore pants usually of corduroy and thick sweaters, and they covered their heads with bright-colored scarves to protect their hair from the dust that rises from the fields with the smallest wind.”

Typically, 12 peck barrel holding 165 pounds of potatoes had staves of Aroostook County cedar and hoops of elm or ash. Details: 30″high; 19″ diameter at top; 20.5″ diameter at midpoint; 20 lbs.
U.S. Potato Sales by Use

Potato Acreage 1987-2005

Potato Acreage 1987-2005

U.S. Potato Sales by Use 1997

U.S. Potato Sales by Use 1997

U.S. Potato Sales by Use 2004

U.S. Potato Sales by Use 2004

Also known as spuds or tubers, potatoes are grown primarily in Aroostook County. They remain a significant element in Maine’s agricultural sector, even as the number of acres harvested declines.

Yield 1867-2005

Yield 1867-2005

Harvested Acres 1867-2005

Harvested Acres 1867-2005

Family Harvest with Horses

Family Harvest with Horses

Mechanical diggers, hauled by horses and later by tractors, preceded the modern day harvesters. As the potatoes lay on the ground, they were picked up by hundreds of hands. First they were put into baskets, then transferred to the barrels, and transported by truck to potato houses for storage before shipment.

The Potato Blossom Festival, a cultural phenomenon in Aroostook County, features the crowning of the annual Potato Blossom Queen.  Watch a short video clip starring the 1966 Queen, from Northeast Historic Film’s archives. [Just close the new window tab to get back to the Encyclopedia.]

Once a leading producer, Maine’s share of potato production has declined steadily over the latter half of the 20th century. In 1987, Maine’s acres harvested and production were 6.4% and 6.0% of the total U.S. crop. By 1992, those figures had slipped to 6.2 and 5.7%. The 1997 United States Department of Agriculture reported a further decline to 5.3% and 4.1%; in 2004 they were 5.3% and 5.3% respectively.

The potato industry has been challenged at times by cheaper imports. In 1982, Aroostook County potato growers gathered in Presque Isle, Houlton and Mapleton to demonstrate against the import of cheaper potatoes, caused by a drop in the value of the Canadian dollar.

The total value of Maine potato sales fluctuates around the $100 million mark, but with inflation, reflects a declining real return to producers. Another challenge is that per capita use of potatoes in the U.S. declined 15% from 2003 to 2009, though the proportions of the types of use have remained relatively stable for more than a decade from 1997 to 2009. (See pie charts at left.)

Market Value of Potatoes 1970-2002

Market Value of Potatoes 1970-2002

Chart: Market Value of Maine Potatoes 1970 – 2002

(Economic Research Service data published in Smith below.)

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Additional Resources

Photos: Maine State Archives, George French Collection

Aroostook County, 1920s. (See Movies , Country Life)

“Maine Potatoes: Acreage, Yield, Size and Grade 2005 Crop.” New England Agricultural Statistics. January 12, 2006. http://www.umaine.edu/umext/cropinsurance/documents/2005%20Crop-MainePotSizeandGrade.pdf (Accessed July 8, 2006.)

Potato Harvest. (See Movies, Franco-American Life)

Smith, Stewart. Maine Agriculture: A Natural Resource Based Industry Constantly Adapting to Change. Prepared for the Blaine House Conference on Natural Resource-Based Industries, November 17, 2005. On-line publication accessed July 9, 2006: http://mainegov-images.informe.org/governor/baldacci/news/events/pdfs/stewartsmith.pdf

Steinbeck, John. Travels with Charley, pp. 63-64.

United States Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service: various Statistical Bulletins and their Internet site at http://www.nass.usda.gov (reviewed January, 2001) Per capita use 2003-2009 from http://www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/Potatoes/data.htm.

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