LaJoie family creates opportunities predecessors didn’t have through support system
Normand LaJoie was thrust into manhood at age 17 when his father, Gilbert, died suddenly in 1955. Normand and his mother, Marthe, were left to run their Maine family farm on their own, and they had to struggle through the downtrodden years of the 1960s.
Today, LaJoie Growers LLC is a 1,500-acre, four-partner farm run by descendants of Gilbert and Normand. Their legacies, and their struggles, are front-of-mind in everything the partners do. The partners include Normand’s two sons Gil and Dominic, as well as Jay, who is Gil’s son, and cousin Lucas LaJoie. Sky LaJoie, son of Gil and brother of Jay, is another family member part of the operation and is in line to become a fifth partner.
Normand expanded the farming operation to include trucking. Dominic LaJoie actually worked as an owner-operator of a long-haul truck for eight years before returning to the family farm.
“During the rough years and struggles, I would complain that we’re not making money,” Dominic recalled. “He would say, ‘I’d rather stay poor and farm than quit farming.’
“We’re really focused on protecting (Normand’s) accomplishments and our grandfather’s accomplishments. They came through rough times in history, when farming was at an all-time low back in the ‘60s. They really worked hard.”
Having multiple partners has allowed Dominic and Jay to get involved with the Maine Potato Board, Potatoes USA and the National Potato Council, which they’ve done with gusto. Dominic currently serves as the NPC’s First Vice President of Environmental Affairs and is line to become its next president in 2021. Jay has served for several years on Potatoes USA’s board.
Dominic cites his involvement as stemming from being named the Maine Potato Board’s 2004 Young Farmer of the Year. With it, he was sponsored to go through the NPC’s Potato Industry Leadership Institute (PILI). Jay also went through the program.
“That really opened my eyes into the public policy work the NPC does,” LaJoie said. “My parents didn’t have the time to be out there and do that. Jay and I, with our whole team approach, we feel … that public policy is critical to our way of life and protecting that way of life.”
Dominic, who has been part of the NPC’s executive committee for several years, also serves on the EPA’s Pesticide Program Dialogue Committee. He credited past NPC presidents, as well as longtime NPC CEO John Keeling, who retired in 2019, and Maine Potato Board Executive Director Don Flannery for their “patience and support. That experience I will pay forward.”
PHOTO GALLERY: More scenes from LaJoie Growers LLC
Dominic added that his and Jay’s time commitments to public policy work are only possible because of the strong team back at the farm.
“Without my business partners, I couldn’t have made these commitments with the travel and the meetings,” Dominic said. “I’m very fortunate in that way because not everybody has that opportunity and has that support behind them.
“I understand when (the NPC) is trying to solicit new growers and new faces that there has to be a network behind them to be able to make those commitments.” He added that the NPC is exploring ways to use technology, like “teleconferences,” in hopes of easing the travel and time burdens to allow more growers to get involved.
Life on the farm
LaJoie Growers headquarters is located only feet from the banks of the St. John River, which separates Maine and New Brunswick. Acreage is spread out over the northeastern tip of Aroostook County.
The LaJoies grow Burbanks and specialty purple potatoes to sell to processors, as well seed potatoes (mostly Caribou russets). They sell seed to other farmers, but also keep some for their own use. They also grow about 80 acres of table beets, including some red and white candy cane beets. They’ve experimented with other crops over years and still grow carrots as “kind of a hobby,” Dominic said.
Experimenting isn’t something the LaJoies shy away from, but any endeavor is well researched and planned out before resources are committed. That includes the purple potatoes they sell to chip makers, which was a relationship that came about through “a lot of internet searching,” Dominic said.
“My goal was always to find a niche market and help my father pay off his debt load and get ready to retire in a better position,” he added. They’ve also done some beet processing to create a line of beet powder, which is growing in popularity as an athletic performance and health supplement.
Among the farm’s biggest challenges are finding enough labor, a common theme among growers across the country, as well as irrigation.
“We’re dryland farmers. We believe in the future that irrigation will come to our area,” Dominic said. “Close to 30% of acres in Maine are irrigated now, but it’s open water sources. … When it doesn’t rain, ponds run dry.”
The four partners, as well as Sky, all can do whatever is needed to run the operation, but each has his own niche area. For example, Jay is the office manager, while Sky tends to concentrate on the packing house. “We all do marketing, we all search for new leads, we just focus on what we do best to keep the operation as efficient as possible,” Dominic said. “We feed off each other.”
Unlike Normand, who often had to shoulder much of field responsibilities on his own, especially as a young farmer, Gil, Dom, Jay, Lucas and Sky have each other, as well as their own spouses and children for support. Dom and his wife of 33 years, Rachel, have four children. “It takes family in farming because nothing in farming is easy,” he said.
The most satisfying part of being a farmer is watching the crop come out of the ground and go into storage, Dominic said.
“We put the faith in our farm and faith in each other and work toward the same goal. … To see that crop coming into storage and to see the results is kind of like a high.
“You’ve gone through the season and now you know that you will have something to feed people.”
Top Photo: From left, Lucas, Sky, Dominic, Jay, William and Gil LaJoie. Lucas, Dominic, Jay and Gil are currently parters of LaJoie Growers LLC. Sky is in line to become a fifth partner. Photo: LaJoie Growers