Leading by example
Driving through Maine, you experience a land of two-lane blacktop roads that wind through copses of hardwood trees. On this autumn day, the first Saturday of October, the sky is azure blue and cloudless. There's a razor-sharp crispness in the air, a brisk cool warmed by rays of the sun.
Earlier in the week, it was rain followed by a sprinkling of snow. But today, the Crane Brothers' farming operation is taking full advantage of the first sunny day in a week to wrap up the harvest.
The sign on the barn says Crane Brothers, but these days it's the Crane cousins who are continuing the expansion of the family farm in Exeter, in central Maine.
Steve and Jim Crane are continuing to grow and develop what was once a relatively small 50-acre fresh-potato operation started by their grandfather in the 1940s. Their dads, Neil and Vernon, increased the size while moving the farm into the chip sector. They've had a standing contract with Frito-Lay for more than 50 years.
"Once they took it over, they pretty much went all potatoes and I think it was in the early ‘60s - ‘60 or ‘61 - when they started doing chipping potatoes for Frito-Lay," said Steve Crane.
Their fathers expanded the farm to about 500 acres by the late 1970s, with the emphasis on potatoes and using corn as the rotation crop. It stayed at that size until the early ‘90s when, through a series of acquisitions, the farm grew to 1,000 acres.
This year, Steve and Jim will be farming close to 3,000 acres, with 1,500 in potatoes. The majority of their rotation crop is in corn, with winter rye and a few acres of oats.
Steve and Jim have worked together their entire lives. The cousins split the workload; Steve is in charge of the agronomy and finances and Jim oversees the equipment, maintenance and repair side.
Now Steve has taken on an extra job: 2012 president of the National Potato Council (NPC).
Crane's involvement with the NPC originated in 2001, when the farm received the Environmental Stewardship Award.
"Our land is pretty rolling, after the potato crop we always go in and seed a winter cover crop," said Crane, describing one of the field actions the farm was cited for when the award was presented. "We think that really helps us on erosion. That green cover tends to absorb any leftover fertilizer from the potato crop and ties that up, so we don't have any leaching off."
While in San Antonio to accept the award, Crane attended some of the break-out sessions and discovered that many of the issues on the agenda matched those he was dealing with back in Maine.
"These other potato growers were having the same problems that we were having in Maine and I said I'd like to get involved," said Crane. "There's a lot of issues that we see at the local level, you don't think that somebody is having the same kind of problem until you go to these meetings to sit on these committees and people talk about similar things."
Crane started attending annual winter and summer meetings and went to Washington, D.C., to visit with legislators and policy makers. He was elected to the executive committee about five years ago.
At the meetings, Crane said, it was typical for him to become introduced to an issue troubling other growers. A year later, he said, the problem would become local - whether it was an Endangered Species Act listing of the Atlantic Salmon or compliance with watershed regulations enforced by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
"I really started to enjoy what was going on, being involved," Crane said.
Now NPC president, Crane easily discusses issues the industry is facing this year.
"Number one is probably the farm bill - if it gets written this year," Crane said. "That's a big question mark.
"I'll be really surprised at the sight of a farm bill in 2012, this being an election year. I don't know if it'll happen. We'll just have to wait and see."
Continued specialty crops funding and risk management crop insurance - both components of the farm bill - loom large on his list. So does negotiating with Mexico to gain full access for fresh potatoes, a process that will require the patience of Job to see it become signed, sealed and delivered.
Finally, there's getting potatoes back into the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) food assistance program.
"We want to get the potatoes back on the WIC to be purchased with WIC dollars," said Crane.
Last year's successful effort at keeping potatoes in the USDA's school lunch program has provided the NPC with a blueprint on how to get the job done in Congress.
"That was a real, true grass-roots effort," said Crane.
He credited growers' efforts to work with local school districts and school nutritionists, and to contact their congressional representatives, for the ultimate success in getting USDA to withdraw their initial nutritional recommendations that left potatoes out.
Finally, Crane, with the assistance of the executive committee, is seeking to develop greater local participation among growers in the NPC. That may entail changing how NPC conducts some of its sessions at the annual winter meeting, by shifting the emphasis to the week of meetings and lobbying held in Washington, D.C.
"We want more voices in D.C.," said Crane, "more involvement from growers."
-Bill Schaefer, Managing Editor
Pictured: Ryan Crane, right, and his great-uncle Neal Crane survey the cleaning operation on an autumn afternoon in Exeter, Maine.