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Maine potato growers enjoy being among the best of the best

In Mars Hill, Maine, a potato-growing family has been named Grand Champion Growers – while raising only 300 acres. Bryan Bell, of Bell Brothers, has no plans to expand the farming operation. He said they want to continue raising good quality potatoes rather than increasing the quantity.

“We go by the theory of how few potatoes we can make a living from – not how many we can grow,” he said.

The approach has paid off. They said they are happy to be where they are.

“If the price is good, we will make enough off the 300 acres,” Bryan said. “If the price is poor, we’ll be glad we hadn’t planted more.”

Out of the 20 years they have been selling Russets to the french fry processor McCain Foods, their potato quality has placed them in the top 10 for 17 of those years. For eight of those years, they have been Grand Champions – winning that position at least three years in a row.

The Bell Brothers Farm is in its fifth generation of ownership. Bryan’s two sons, Karter, 23, and Kramer, 22, will make it the sixth generation when they become part owners. A third son, Kalen, 25, is an ag technician at the SAD #1 School Farm in nearby Presque Isle. Daughter Katie is a nursing student at the University of Maine and is not sure of her career plans.

The farm was started by great-great-grandfather Richard Bell and continued with great-grandfather Urban, grandfather Alfred and father Gary to the current ownership by Bryan and Breen. The farm was known as Bell Farms until 1996, when the name was changed to Bell Brothers and was owned by Gary, Bryan and his wife Marie and Breen and his wife Joanne. Breen and Joanne have since left the farming operation. Sons Karter and Kramer are expected to officially join the farm organization.

The tillable land consists of 750 acres, including some that is rented. There are 300 acres in potatoes ¬– Katahdins, Russets, Superiors, Yukon Golds, Mononas and Rebas. Another 300 acres are in grain and the remaining 150 acres are in hay. Half of the potato acres are Russets for processing, with the rest in table stock.

“We have had three families, when my brother Breen was involved, living off 300 acres,” Bryan said.

But, he said, that isn’t really enough acreage.

“You need to do something different, something extra,” he said.

With the supply of trucks for hauling potatoes out of Aroostook County scarce, the Bells have filled this need with two trucks of their own. Bryan’s son, Kramer, makes about three trips every two weeks, hauling 60 percent of their table stock to a grocer in Schenectady, N.Y. Other table stock potatoes go to customers in North Carolina and Massachusetts for sale by brokers. A second truck driver is hired for other trips. The trucks fill the bill for extra income.

Most of the loads are mixed lots of perhaps 200 bags of Russets and the rest round whites topped with a Yukon Golds, Bryan said.

“We don’t do many whole loads of 300 or 400 bags.”

The Yukon Golds are getting to be popular, Bryan said, and the reds seem to be catching on.

“Maine doesn’t seem to be able to do a good job with reds,” he said. “After the first of the year, they turn brown.”

And Bryan said he’s heard some other concerns about potatoes this year.

“People have been saying you can’t sell potatoes this year,” Bryan said. “They say they are a dollar a barrel, or something. There are other things you can do. There are niche markets. We had 30 acres of Yukon Golds, and we figure we sold them for about $22 a barrel – they were twice the price of the whites most of the winter.”

While Bell Brothers has a reel irrigation system and has irrigated since 1970, it doesn’t do any serious irrigation, even though it has the capability to irrigate half its acreage. Bryan said the company relies more on crop rotation to improve the water-holding capacity of the soil. And irrigation can result in over-watering.

“Treating the ground better has outperformed irrigation,” he said.

Bell Brothers is on a five-year rotation plan. The Bells plant potatoes two years out of the five on a section. Potatoes are planted one year and seeded with grass and barley for the second year. The barley is harvested leaving hay for the following year. Then it’s back to potatoes for a year, followed by ryegrass on barley. The hay is chopped and left to rot.

A good career

Bryan said he enjoyed farming and being his own boss.

“It’s all I’ve ever done,” he said.

He said his reward comes from growing a good crop and having it well received. He also said it is important he can pass the farm on to his sons.

“I want to see my family keep going with the farm,” Bryan said.

Bryan’s wife, Marie, also was born on an Aroostook County potato farm and is an important part of the operation. She works on the grading rack, drives a truck during harvest, cuts seed and serves as the farm’s accountant.

“I wrote in my high school yearbook that I hoped I would marry a farmer,” Marie said.

As much success as they have seen, Bryan said it would be difficult for someone to start farming today.

“When a potential farmer graduates from college, and unless someone can support him, he isn’t going to be able to go to the bank and borrow enough money to start a farm and make a go of it,” he said. “Forty years ago, or even 30, you could have done it.”

Bryan, who just turned 48, graduated from high school in 1976. He spent the summer working in construction to earn enough money to go to a technical school where he studied accounting for only six weeks.

“I should have stayed,” he said.

Bryan serves on the Farm Credit board of directors, has been a member of the Agriculture Bargaining Council and the table stock committee of the Maine Potato Board.

His involvements go beyond the farm, too. He is a director for a local Christian radio station, is a deacon at United Baptist Church in Mars Hill and teaches Sunday school as well. During the winter, Bryan and Marie host a cell group from their church for 10 to 12 friends.

Originally posted Saturday, Apr. 7, 2007

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