Maine potato grower sells direct to consumers from roadside stand
Dan Stewart got an early start in farming in Aroostook County, Maine, growing round whites, Superiors, Kennebecs and russets on 100 acres with his father, Ken.
“We raised for the fresh market and a few for the processing plant,” Stewart said recalling a time a half century ago.
Stewart still lives in the house he grew up in, with a few modifications. His U.S. Route No. 1 market stand, south of Presque Isle, has become an icon of the area.
With its bright red building, the American flag and row upon row of pumpkins, potato baskets and the potato barrels he builds himself, his market stand has become something of a tourist stopping point.
Stewart graduated from high school in 1968 and was thrust into running the farm operation when his father died in 1969.
“We were only raising potatoes, then I farmed only for a couple of years. Times were tough so I took a job as a brakeman for Aroostook Valley Railroad,” Stewart said.
For 12 years Stewart worked for the railroad and farmed on the side.
“I still farmed, just enough to keep the farm going,” he said. “I rented out some of the land and we added corn and squash along with selling potatoes.”
Over the years Dan continued adding new products to the farming operation. String beans and squash became staples at the market stand.
“In the following 10 years we added something extra each year,” he said.
His children would run the farm stand while he worked. Business at farm stand has increased to a point where he has been forced to concentrate on farming.
“There are two of us working at the farm stand year round,” Stewart said. “During the summer there are four or six of us and with harvest season there might be as many as 40 youngsters picking peas, string beans and potatoes.”
This year Stewart is raising 12 varieties of spuds, including Amaways, Green Mountains, Shepodies, Gold Rush Russets and Red Norlands.
“My market is different than a farmer raising for a processor or for chips,” Stewart said about the many varieties. “I am selling directly to the public. Since they can come right here to the farm stand and get a variety, that is my niche. The potatoes that go into a grocery store, 90 percent of the time are either a russet or round whites.”
Most of his potato crop is sold directly from the farm stand, but he also delivers fresh potatoes to local stores. He will truck about 20 percent of his crop to roadside markets at southern Maine locations, working off the tailgate of his pick-up.
As his business grew he added a farm truck and now uses a 22-foot box on a truck body. He has developed a loyal customer base through the years. Regular customers will call ahead to determine when he will be in their area.
Once he set up his truck in a grocery store parking lot. He tried to give the store manager a bag of potatoes for the use of the space, but the manager insisted on paying for his potatoes and even bought a second bag, Stewart said.
“I try to put up a good package,” Stewart said. “If I don’t, I wouldn’t be able to show my face in that town again.
Stewart doesn’t wash his potatoes. He believes that they keep better unwashed.
“Once you wash it and there are nicks or bruises on any disease, bacteria, it will go right to that cut,” he said. “Then they start breaking down. We sometimes dry brush them if they are dirty. If they are nice and clean, they keep better with a little field dirt on them.”
Stewart advises his customers to never buy more than they can eat in a month.
“If people have a cellar at 70° F, the potatoes will sprout. I don’t use any sprout inhibitor on any of my potatoes,” he said.
Along with other Aroostook County farmers, Stewart participates in the State of Maine Senior FarmShare Program. Funded by USDA and managed by the Maine Department of Agriculture, the program provides $50 worth of fresh vegetables to qualifying senior citizens.
“The program helps out small farmers like myself who want to participate in it,” Stewart said.
“I have 500 seniors and could sign 1,000 if I had the funding,” he said. “Those seniors that qualify get $50 worth of free vegetables, then I donate another 60 or 70 pounds.”
Pauline Stewart participates in the program, and she said that one of Stewart’s assistants delivers to her apartment.
“There is no charge,” she said. “We get $50worth of produce. A person can go out to the farm and get what they want, when they want it.”
“It’s a time share,” Stewart said about the program. “I can put up a basket of vegetables each week or they can pick up their own. That way they get the varieties of potatoes they want. They have 12 to 14 weeks to use up their time share.”
Stewart’s never bought a new piece of equipment. He’s always relied on second-hand equipment.
“I always paid for the equipment as I went along and I don’t carry a large debt,” he said.
“I received a good lesson when I worked with my dad,” Stewart said. “Every eight or nine years there would be a good price with potatoes selling as high as $20 a barrel. The FFA boys all planted five acres and they had new pick-ups and new cars. Then the next year the price was so low we were dumping potatoes,” he said.
“As long as I can make a profit, I will continue,” Stewart said.
He’s an old-school Maine potato farmer that has found a niche market into the 21st century.