Sherman Mills grower named chairman of USPB
Spring is a busy time of year at Three Oaks Farm in Sherman Mills, Maine. There are storage potatoes to ship out and the fields and equipment have to be prepared for the start of planting, said Tom Qualey, who farms with his brother John.
This season has started off with gorgeous weather, Qualey said, and some Maine growers were getting planted started early. The region was about a week ahead, and he had his planters lined up ready to go before Mother’s Day.
The Qualey’s, the fifth generation of Irish immigrants, haven’t always been potato farmers, despite the Irish connection. Tom and John took over the farm from their dad, and at the time it was a dairy farm. Their dad convinced them to get away from that business, so they moved into growing potatoes and canola. Last year they had about 340 acres of potatoes, and their highest acreage is about 550 acres. Qualey said he’s not sure where they would fall this season, but it would probably be about the same as last year.
Sherman Mills isn’t the area most people think of when they hear about Maine potatoes. The town is about 75 miles south of Presque Isle, Maine, where most of the state’s potato production is. The area doesn’t look very agricultural, either, Qualey said. It’s heavily forested and the good land is tucked away behind trees, so anyone driving through might not even know there are fields. That lack of available good land has limited the production in the area, so there aren’t many large farms like those in other areas.
Three Oaks Farm grows all processing potatoes Frito Lay varieties that are under contract. Although he hadn’t seen the contracts as of early May, Qualey said he and other processing and chipstock growers were pleased with the price they’d been told. He said the McCain contracts should be up about $2.25 and other chip contracts were up about $2. Maine growers didn’t receive an increase last year, so they’re in pretty good spirits this season, Qualey said.
Maine has always been an important potato growing region, but the number of growers has dropped considerably in the last 25 to 30 years. Qualey said when he was in high school there were probably 25 potato growers and 25 dairy farms in the Sherman Mills area. Now there are only three dairies and three potato farms, including his.
The last three of us picked up the good land,” Qualey said.
The same thing is happening throughout Aroostook County.
“Agricultural opportunities in this area are dwindling,” he said.
But that hasn’t deterred the Qualeys. They’re hands-on farmers who don’t have plans on quitting any time soon. Tom’s wife, Linda, is the CEO of a nonprofit organization in the area and she does the books for the farm, and when they’re really busy he’ll talk her into running some of the equipment. John has kids that help out on the farm, too, but Qualey said so far none of them seem interested in taking over the farming operations.
Qualey’s been involved in the Maine potato industry and the national organizations for a number of years. He serves on the Maine Pesticide Board as an agricultural expert and has served on United States Potato Board committees for the last six years. At the 2009 annual meeting in Denver, Qualey was named chairman of the United States Potato Board, a spot vacated by Bart Connors of Pasco, Wash.
There are many exciting things happening, but there’s a lot of uncertainty in the market as well. Qualey said he has a good roadmap to follow and his job was to make sure USPB activities stick to it.
“My goal is to really stay with the long range plan,” he said. “If we stay on course with that then I’d be really, really excited.”
One of the bright spots is the export market. Although the strong dollar has slowed that down a bit recently, the board is working to open new markets. One of the most promising he’s seen is Vietnam. John Toaspern, vice president of international marketing, visited the Asian country in April and made headway into opening the country. Qualey traveled with the potato board to Hong Kong and Singapore last year to participate in chef training programs, where he had the chance to meet two Vietnamese chefs. He said they were very excited about the potato products and Qualey said there could be a lot of opportunity for growth in that market.
Maine growers don’t typically export to the Pacific Rim, so other growers would ask why he would travel there with the board. He would tell them that it benefits all growers to open markets and increase exports, “because every potato that gets shipped over there is one fewer that comes over here.”
With federal programs being cut, Qualey said the USPB was watching the situation closely because the export programs could be affected.
“We’re hoping we’re keeping our matching money for exports,” he said.
Another opportunity for growth is here in the United States. The board is developing innovative new products for U.S. consumers to increase the consumption of fresh potatoes and position them as healthful, convenient products.
“We’re working on some great things,” Qualey said.
Hopefully, the economy will pick back up this year, but Qualey is working with the board to ensure that money gets spent on the right things so growers can see a positive return on their investment.
“We’re in some tight budget times and since I’ve taken over we’ve been very careful about what we spend money on,” he said.
Qualey will host the USPB summer meeting Aug. 3-7 in Bangor, Maine. It will be held at the Hollywood Slots Hotel, a brand-new hotel. The location isn’t near the big potato growing areas of Maine, but Qualey said the site will be easier to travel to for board members from out of town and would help keep costs down with a good rate and eliminating the need for rental cars. Board members can register for the event by e-mailing Robin Vest at firstname.lastname@example.org”