Nature’s Circle Farm
Aroostook County, Maine’s northernmost county along the Canadian border, was once the largest potato growing region in the United States, and history has it that schools wouldn’t open until the children had harvested the fields. Decades later, marketing has led to the region being known mainly for its blueberry and lobster industries, but operations such as Nature’s Circle Farm are staying true to the county’s potato heritage and thriving during the return of the crop’s popularity.
Located in New Limerick, Nature’s Circle Farm has come a long way since its humble beginnings as a roadside fruit stand in Aroostook County.
In 1997, Meg York’s father, a seventh- generation farmer, decided to begin experimenting with growing organic crops on a plot of land that hadn’t been in production for 40 years, though it had previously been farmed by the family’s ancestors. Of 120 available acres, he and his son started with two acres and sold the organic produce through community-supported agriculture programs and at a roadside stand. Because the area had such a small population for its size and number of farmers, the father and son duo — who were both also working full-time jobs outside of the farm — connected with a local group of organic farmers and began a broader marketing effort to sell their produce elsewhere.
York joined the team full-time in 2004. A mother and licensed social worker, she made the transition to marketing and bookkeeping to help the farm thrive and promote the value of organic produce, primarily along the U.S. Eastern Seaboard.
Now with roughly 400 acres of organic production and 30 year-round employees, Nature’s Circle currently produces MOFGA Certified Organic root crops, tablestock and seed potatoes. The farm also has contracts with local Amish farmers who grow squash, cabbage, onions and other organic crops.
Nature’s Circle does a three year rotation with its potatoes using clover and winter rye as cover crops. The farm does flaming, hilling and finger- weeding for weed control, and uses only OMRI-approved pesticides.
While cabbage and winter squash have been a farm favorite in past years, York believes table potatoes and seed potatoes are the future of Nature’s Circle Farm.
“That really seems to be what is the most profitable for us,” she said. “We’re the best at it, and we enjoy it the most.”
One hundred and thirty of Nature’s Circle Farm’s production acres are now dedicated solely to growing organic tablestock and 14 different varieties of organic seed potatoes. There are various criteria that influence variety selection, including early-, mid- and late-season options, as well as customer favorites.
“What our customers want most is what we grow for,” said York. “We also have our old standbys, grown every single year for loyal customers and our own tablestock.”
The farm’s most popular early- season varieties are Yukon Gold, Dark Red Norland and Kennebec. Midseason favorites are yellows Satina and Lehigh because they’re good in storage, have a delicious flavor and attractive appearance, pack out well and are disease resistant. Late in the season, the farm turns to Red Maria.
“They yield so well, and they’re so disease resistant,” said York. “They just have the most gorgeous red color, and they hold up so well in storage. We just cannot understand why these have not taken off.”
Goldrush is a farm darling as well.
“You cannot beat the flavor of a Goldrush,” said York. “We like the color of it, the way it packs out, and its excellent storage and yield.”
A cross between Lemhi Russet and a North Dakota variety, Nature’s Circle’s medium-sized Goldrush is extremely versatile and disease resistant, making it an enduring fresh market favorite.
Like most farms, Nature’s Circle Farm contended with the uncertainty of the pandemic, and is still undergoing its own recovery through a curious trend. Seed sales experienced a jump after the first year of the COVID pandemic, increased slowly and then leveled off to where they currently remain. But tablestock sales for the farm are at an all-time high, and demand has been increasing so quickly that the farm can barely keep up.
There was a jump in tablestock sales last year, “but this year was like an explosion,” said York.
The holiday sales more than doubled.
Growth is still on the agenda for the operation, and York also sees the farm becoming much more mechanized in the near future. With the increasing efficiency of farm machines and the rising cost of labor, she said it just makes sense.
Within the last year, Nature’s Circle acquired a new harvester and two new tractors, and York sees many more machine purchases just around the corner.
“We are excited to expand,” she said. “We got quite a few new things this year, so that was exciting for everybody.”
Photos: Nature’s Circle Farms