In fifteen years or so of farm forays I have watched potatoes come and go in the gourmet revival of heirloom everything. Novelty candy stripes and blue or purple potatoes appear one season and vanish the next, as growers learn which kinds best suit their soil and cooks realize that color seldom indicates better flavor. Chefs discover that the secret of the best puree they ever tasted was not the Ratte variety that Parisian chefs swear by but the equal weight of butter whipped in before serving. In my experiments dark-horse varieties have often turned out to taste far better than touted ones. As always, variety counts less than climate and the care the farmer takes.
I was always puzzled, though, as to why so little potato news came from Maine, which for even longer than Idaho has been synonymous with potatoes in this country. It is also part of my heritage: my grandfather traveled every fall from Connecticut to northern Maine, where he bought the state's famous seed potatoes to sell to southern New England farmers. I learned on a recent visit to Aroostook County, one of my grandfather's destinations, that Maine has kept its reputation among the country's most reliable suppliers of disease-resistant seed potatoes even as the state's potato industry has otherwise diminished.
Few small farmers have stepped in to claim Maine's unused potato fields and grow the old varieties for which chefs and home cooks pay a premium. But on my trip I did find what might be the country's best source of those heirloom potatoes worth growing and eating: a strictly organic farm in the heart of what was once traditional potato-growing territory. It is run by an earthy, sympathetic couple whose entrepreneurial spirit and canny respect for the land my grandfather would have appreciated—even if their founding philosophy, and their hairstyles, would have baffled him.
When I drove into Wood Prairie Farm, a few miles from the several potato cooperatives remaining along a stretch of Route 1 in northern Aroostook County, Jim Gerritsen was leaning over a curious tractor painted pea green. He had rigged its trailer as a potato planter, with a few homemade parts jutting from the base and sides. "Two eyes apiece," he said, cutting a long seed potato into four chunks. "It's the eyes that sprout." He laid the chunks, some of which had already sprouted, on a black rubber conveyor belt at the back of the planter. "We put this on," he said, pointing to a spade-shaped length of metal at the front, "because our soil is so rocky it could break an ordinary potato planter."
Aroostook hardly resembles the Maine that draws tourists from all over the world, the Maine of lobster boats and evergreen-dotted seascapes. The county is vast, as big as Connecticut and Rhode Island combined; it has sky-wide open plains, and hills covered with pines. It's easy to see why some New Englanders have an almost visceral annual longing to go north, for the hunting, fishing, and fresh air. It's easy to see, too, why the farmland appealed to English and Irish settlers, who recognized that the cool, damp climate would be ideal for growing potatoes. They also discovered that the soil, however rocky, was better than what they had left behind; "caribou loam," as in the native reindeer that once lived in the Maine woods, has just the right mixture of clay, silt, and sand. Through the 1940s Maine was the country's largest potato producer, and Aroostook County produced 90 percent of Maine potatoes.
Today the Maine woods are being methodically logged by Canadian and American timber companies, and the chief planting in what once was the chief agricultural county in New England has become trees. The acreage devoted to potatoes shrank from 200,000 in the late 1940s to 64,000 in 2000, a loss of nearly 70 percent. The soil is still just as good for potatoes. But the big buyers don't want Maine potatoes anymore, because, like all potatoes grown without steady, controlled irrigation, they are uneven in shape. The widespread use of irrigation in the West—and, especially, the standards of uniformity that McDonald's set in the 1950s for its french fries—made the industry move.
Running a farm in Aroostook County was an unusual career choice for a young man who grew up in San Francisco. But farming ran in Gerritsen's blood: both his parents had been raised on farms and were part of the postwar migration from country to city. ("My grandfather kept telling my dad that farming was hard, that there wasn't much money in it," Gerritsen told me. "My dad listened.") While studying forestry at a California college, Gerritsen decided that his place was on a farm, not in school. From the look of him today, that decision was inevitable: his craggy features, deep-set green eyes, and wind-etched face immediately identify him as a man of the land. The gray-white beard and shoulder-length hair identify him as a child of the 1960s.
The decline of potato farming in Maine was what made Gerritsen think he could afford good farmland there, and get a head start on the organic farming he intended to practice. Land was cheap, and Aroostook County was too remote to attract developers. Farmland was still clear: former potato farmers had not yet planted it all with trees, a low-maintenance crop, and new-growth forests had not yet covered abandoned farmland. The lapsed time without any kind of planting meant that much Aroostook farmland would more than meet the requirements of organic farming. Gerritsen told me that he was also drawn by Maine's reputation for having "good, friendly, down-to-earth people living an outdoor tradition."
In 1976 Gerritsen bought Wood Prairie Farm, in Bridgewater, a short drive down Route 1 from the town of Presque Isle, the effective capital of Aroostook County, and only a few miles from the Canadian border. At first he grew what he thought the organic market wanted: vegetables, apples for cider, pumpkins. He also raised cattle and lambs for organic meat. But none of these paid well enough to support the farm.
Potatoes seemed the least likely solution. What market remains is mostly for "chipping" potatoes—unbeautiful potatoes not shapely enough for McDonald's but sufficient for industrial french fries. Then Gerritsen thought of seed potatoes. A significant portion of the Maine potato market has always been for seed potatoes, which are fully mature and have been grown carefully (and labor-intensively) to ensure that they are disease-free. Potatoes left over from the previous year's harvest are likely to be plagued by bacteria, viruses, or fungi; late blight, which caused the Irish potato famine, remained a danger to the U.S. crop through the 1980s. Starting in the 1920s, Maine set itself up as the country's most scrupulous producer of seed potatoes. "Maine certified" meant the best and safest potatoes when my grandfather was buying and selling them, and the phrase still carries great weight in the potato world. Gerritsen could fill a big gap by producing certified organic seed potatoes, and the most appealing varieties would be heirlooms and traditional Maine potatoes that had fallen out of use.