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Brothers run third-generation family farm in Maine

The Roope family has farmed in Presque Isle, Maine, for more than 80 years, but the current generation has seen the biggest changes in the last five to 10 years. The Roopes were named Maine Farm Family of the Year for 2008 by the Maine Potato Board.

The family farm, now run by brothers Bruce and Brandon, was their grandmother’s in the 1920s and her second husband, who came down from Nova Scotia, really got the farm going. It supported their seven children and put five through college. Bruce and Brandon’s dad, Robert Jr., took over until he retired almost 15 years ago. Now 80, he still works on the farm every day. He taught his sons to “keep plugging away, always do your best, modernize, step out, take risks and always have optimism.”

The Roope brothers now farm about 450 acres in Aroostook County, on land next to the Aroostook River. They grow almost all processing varieties for contract customers with a season that starts with May plantings. The weather hasn’t been a problem this season and Bruce said the crop was looking good at row closure.

New technology has helped the family farm do more work with fewer people, and most of that has been in recent years. When Bruce was in high school, the biggest change was a four-row planter – one of the largest pieces of equipment he’d ever seen.

“Now, we pick up 10 rows at a time during harvest and our trucks carry 200 barrels of potatoes,” he said.

But mechanization hasn’t made everything easier. Costs have gone up for nearly everything each year, and non-farmers don’t understand the need for good, profitable farms.

“Times can be tough, even now, with the cost of production,” Bruce said. “And people forget about the role farming plays in feeding our nation and in supporting our economy. We all need to remember how important industries related to natural resources are. We never want to become reliant on another country for our food.”

Both brothers are avid fishermen and hunters, so preserving the land is important to them. Since they border the Aroostook River, they’ve had to take steps to prevent leaching and drainage into the river, which supplies water to nearby towns. They’ve installed soil erosion systems and implemented good agricultural practices that include testing the soil for nutrients and calibrating machinery to avoid overspraying.

They’ve seen the benefits of the programs firsthand. A new piece of acreage adjacent to the river had a waterway that was in disrepair, leading to erosion during rain events. The brothers rebuilt the 700-foot waterway that funnels water from different parts of the fields into the river. Three years ago, a storm dumped 1.5 inches of rain in 30 minutes, and the new spillway effectively moved the water off the fields without eroding them or forming gulleys. Not only did the improvements reduce the amount of good soil that was lost from the fields, it also improved the water quality of the river.

The Roopes have also preserved wetlands and forested land to preserve wildlife habitats. They’ve implemented an IPM program using a Maine Cooperative Extension scouting program, and the farm is part of Extension’s Disease Forecast System, which uses monitoring stations for early and late blight predictions.

The brothers have been involved in the local community and in national potato groups for years. Brandon currently sits on the Maine Potato Board as the treasurer of the processing sector and Bruce has served as chairman of the Central Aroostook Soil and Water Conservation District in Presque Isle. They’ve both served on National Potato Council boards and on the local school board.

While the going isn’t always easy for farmers, Bruce hopes that young people in Maine will continue to work in agricultural fields. Potatoes and other crops grown in Maine not only feed the community, they feed people throughout the world. And having viable agricultural businesses is good for the local economy.

More than 6,000 people in Maine make their living off the potato industry, and the commodity accounts for $540 million in sales for the state, according to the Maine Potato Board.

Originally posted Tuesday, Jul. 29, 2008

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