I come from a long line of them.
I have many ancestors who were Maine potato farmers starting in the 1830’s and continuing through the 1990s, when I farmed potatoes for numerous area farmers. As a kid, I picked potatoes by hand and when I was older, I worked on a harvester, in a potato house and also in a potato truck. I’m very proud to have participated in a profession so many of my ancestors did.
These are ancestors I know were potato farmers in Caribou and Fort Fairfield, Maine. More surely worked the harvest for extra money, to make ends meet.
History of potato farming in Aroostook County, Maine
In the early 1800s, Aroostook County was still largely unsettled, with vast forests and undeveloped land. Settlers began to move into the area and recognized the region’s fertile soil and favorable climate for potatoes. Many farmers were attracted to the abundant land and started clearing the vast forests to create new farms.
Potato farming quickly became the primary agricultural activity in the area. Cool climate and soil are ideal conditions for potato cultivation. The early settlers, including farmers of Scottish, Irish, and French-Canadian descent, recognized the potential of potato farming and began to grow potatoes extensively.
In the early years, farmers grew potatoes primarily for their own consumption and local markets. They used traditional methods such as hand planting and harvesting. Limited transportation options made it difficult to expand production and access distant markets.
Communities were tight-knit and self-sufficient. Families worked together to clear land, plant, tend crops, and harvest. They built log cabins, raised livestock, and cultivated other crops to sustain themselves. Families were large, providing labor to expand their farming operations.
Harsh winters, pests, diseases, and occasional crop failures posed constant threats. However, farmers developed innovative methods to overcome these challenges. They experimented with different potato varieties, adopted crop rotation techniques, and employed rudimentary pest control measures to protect their crops.
Aroostook County became known as the “Potato Capital of the World,” and its potatoes were highly regarded for their quality. This provided a source of income for many families, boosting their economy and attracting more settlers, leading to the establishment of warehouses, processing facilities, and transportation networks.
By the mid-19th century, the availability of more advanced farm machinery, such as horse-drawn plows and harvesters, helped increase productivity. The completion of transportation infrastructure, including roads and railroads, allowed potatoes to be sold to larger markets outside the region.
In the late 1800s & early 1900s, technological advancements in machinery such as steam-run tractors, mechanical planters, and harvesters, greatly increased efficiency and productivity. This allowed for larger-scale operations and facilitated the transition to more specialized potato cultivation.
In the early 1900s, farmers faced challenges related to market fluctuations and unfair pricing. To address these issues, farmers formed co-ops to collectively negotiate prices, pool resources, and share knowledge. These movements empowered farmers and helped stabilize the industry.
Canadians have played a significant role in helping harvest potatoes in Aroostook County, particularly during peak harvest. They still do, today, through the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SWAP). Without their assistance, many harvests would not have been completed before winter.
Throughout the 1900s, farmers adopted scientific farming practices, such as improved seed selection, crop rotation, soil conservation techniques, and pest management strategies. The use of mechanized equipment, irrigation systems and chemical fertilizers further enhanced productivity and crop yields.
They responded to changing market demands and consumer preferences by diversifying the potato varieties they cultivated. While traditional varieties like the Russet Burbank remained popular, the introduction of new varieties, such as the Katahdin and the Atlantic, allowed farmers to cater to different markets which helped sustain the industry.
Potato farmers in Aroostook County have faced numerous challenges over the years. Adverse weather conditions, diseases, pests, and market fluctuations have periodically affected yields and profitability. The resilience of farmers and their ability to innovate and adapt have allowed them to overcome challenges and maintain The County’s position as a leading potato-growing region.
In recent times, smaller farms have been disappearing as the larger operations absorbed them. This, combined with the closure of Loring Air Force Base in Limestone has led to lower incomes in the area, so many young people move away in search of a career. A renewed emphasis on science and technology has emerged and recent results with the help of the University of Maine, Presque Isle.