Travel to U.S.: East: Farming in Aroostook County
Potato farmers are hurting all around the country, but those in Aroostook County, at the northern tip of Maine, have to be especially creative to survive. They cultivate shallow soils, they don't irrigate, and they have a short growing season. The only way to stay in business is to get into seed-potato production, where the county's isolation gives it an advantage over farmers in better growing areas, where there are lots of neighbors--any of whose fields might carry disease.
The eastern fringe of Aroostook County is an agricultural oddity, a block of cultivable land separated by forest from the other farmlands of New England. The agricultural land centers on the Aroostook River as it flows east from the Maine woods and into Canada. East of Caribou, the river flows languidly on a long day of a short summer.
Potatoes are the famous crop, but woe to the farmer who doesn't rotate them. The standard rotation crop is oats, here planted on a slope not far from the previous picture. The forest is never far away.
A few miles north of Caribou, the forest returns to dominate the landscape; brooks like this flow through it, and there are several large lakes. Beyond, hard against the Canadian border, lies the St. John River and the Acadian community that settled there as a refuge from the British, who were busily deporting the rest of Canada's Acadian community to Louisiana.
A back road into the Saint John Valley, where potatoes remain the chief crop--the only crop that ever makes money.
For a few weeks of the year, the potatoes bloom.
Much of the cultivated land is so hilly that soil-conservation measures are needed, like these grassed berms that keep surface runoff from gullying the fields.
This is the kind of isolation that favors seed growers, who can keep their fields physically separate from potentially diseased neighboring fields.
Again, the standard rotation crop is oats, which hardly pay but which keep the soil fit for potatoes in alternate years. The farmer here has alternating strips of each crop, a common practice.
As fat as land gets hereabouts: floodplain flats, with oats and freshly hilled potatoes.
A typical farmstead: forest, the two crops, a barn. Passing through the middle of the picture is Highway 161, the main route between the St. John Valley and Caribou. It's none too crowded.
Secondary roads are often unpaved.
Sometimes clover is planted, though neither cut nor grazed. Farm animals used to be common--horses, dairy cows, swine--but they're gone, and the clover is only a soil-builder.
Even potatoes are on the decline in Aroostook. The peak was around World War II, and production has steadily declined from about 100,000 acres in 1980 to about 60,000 now. The potato houses, locally called caves, are unlikely ever to be filled again.
A farmhouse near Fort Kent, inhabited by perhaps five generations of one Acadian family. In 1980, there was a disused oil furnace in the basement and an Ashley stove in the living room. It did the trick, well stoked with beech and maple piled in the basement at the start of each winter. Here, one winter's supply. The house was razed in the late 1980s.
The replacement house, built about 1975. The owner has survived partly because he has plenty of wood to cut during the winter. It's the cash from that wood, which he himself cuts and yards, that keeps him afloat.
It's still white here when the seed potatoes start heading to Georgia or some such destination.
Inside the truck: nothing fancy. Just bulk loading.
The inside of the potato house, where potatoes are inspected before being loaded.
Bins, not quite full.
Close-up. The room is cold, but not freezing. The smell is musty; the potatoes, almost rock hard.
A few miles north, at Clair, New Brunswick, the green sign points to the international bridge crossing to Fort Kent. The McDonald's sign points to a restaurant in the next country. That's an oddity. So is the fact that the McDonald's doesn't serve local potatoes: the company uses only russets, which are poorly suited to Aroostook.
For a glimpse of the industry as it was in the late 1970s, Potato Snows, a chapter from At Odds with Progress.
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