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All in the Family

All in the Family

Mark Tarr was born to be a Maine potato farmer. It's in his DNA - a simple fact of life. When all eight of your great-great grandfathers were farmers in Aroostook County, referred to as "The County" by Maine denizens, then the odds are pretty good that you will find yourself working that rocky Maine soil, growing potatoes.

"I farmed with my grandfather and I farmed with my father, so it was all natural, just to step into it," Tarr said about his life's work.

"It was a great way to spend more time with my father. In the summer when he'd go to work, if he didn't wake me up to take me with him I'd ride my bicycle to work, and I'd generally be mad at him for not waking me up to go with him."

Tarr estimated that he spends more time with his father, David, than his mother spends with him.

For more than a century it's been a family farm and that hadn't changed on a cool, overcast October day in 2011.
The rains have stopped, finally, and the ground has dried up enough to resume harvest. Mark drives the harvester while his sister Karen Flewelling drives alongside taking a load of French fingerlings back to the storage shed where their father, David, and Mark's wife, Debra, oversee the storage operation along with his uncle Carroll Plissey, Galen Forsman and Richard Fortin.

This year they have to be particularly vigilant as the fingerlings race down the conveyor into storage. The year has been a year unlike any in recent memory; with record rainfall in June and July growers are trying to keep their sheds clean of any potential problems.

Tarr said that normal rainfall for the months of May, June, July and August averages around 16 inches but this year they saw between 35 inches and 40 inches, depending on where you lived in The County. Tarr is reluctant to estimate how his potatoes will fare as they go into storage.

"It's going to be probably before next spring before you can write the whole story," he said, "right now there's going to be some challenges. The excess water that we had this summer was of historical proportions. More than what some of the potatoes could stand."

They've got the ventilation fans going; they're checking the temperatures and watching the tops of piles for any signs of problems.

"Even with doing the best job you can do, you can only harvest so slow, you just have to do the best job you can and hope for the best," Tarr said.

Adding to the difficulties of the weather is the type of seed potatoes Tarr is harvesting. He grows four types of french fingerlings, including Rose Finn Apple, Russian bananas, Purple Peruvians and Kennebecs. He estimated that he's been growing the colored varieties for about 15 years.

Because the fingerlings are so long and slender they require a narrower pitch. Tarr said he lost a day of harvesting to change over the harvester and the windrower to different lags.

"We still lost some but you have to pretty much make up your mind that you're not going to get every one of them," Tarr said, "so you try to plant a few extra than you think you might need. If there's a few laying on the ground you can only cry so much about it."

These days he grows about 100 acres of specialty seed potatoes and 170 acres of oats. According to Tarr they have enough land to rotate one year in and one year out but they can leave a field fallow for up to four years. At one time they were growing potatoes on 300 acres, but they've been able to lower their acreage without impacting their revenue.

He first began growing the blue and red colored varieties for a chip company but when that market dried up he contacted an in-state garden company, Johnny's Selected Seeds and now he sells to about 15 garden seed companies up and down the east coast.

"We've built a pretty good relationship with the seed companies that we're working with," Tarr said. "They're pretty loyal and there's a lot of working back and forth."

Tarr is starting to ship to southern states, including Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. The shipping season for those states begins in February and so they've had to begin ship their seed in insulated boxes that has helped open up markets down there.

Tarr said that the most difficult part of being a seed potato grower is trying to anticipate what the market will want not just next year but four or five years from now.

Because they buy nuclear two seed they'll grow the seed for two years before they sell it to commercial growers and they have to put their seed order in to the Maine Seed Potato Board's Porter Seed Farm two years in advance so it almost requires a crystal ball to forecast what the market will demand, he said.

One of the biggest changes and concerns he's seen during his farming career is the shrinking acreage of potato farms in Maine means a shrinking demand for seed and an inability to sustain the necessary infrastructure to maintain a healthy potato industry.

"We used to have several fertilizer companies that would blend the fertilizer here on this side of the border," Tarr said. "Now, there's just one fertilizer company blending fertilizer in Maine. The majority probably bring their fertilizer in from Canada."

Despite these tough times Tarr doesn't seem to let the current difficulties impact his outlook on life. It all comes down to enjoying your work and working with those you love.

"Even a bad day of work is a good day of work if you get to spend it with your father doing what you like," he said.

—Bill Schaefer, Managing Editor

Originally posted Thursday, Dec. 8, 2011

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