National Geographic : 1948 Oct
Aroostook County, Maine, Source of Potatoes BY HOWELL WALKER With Illustrations from Photographs by the Author T HROUGH a hundred miles of unchang ing wilderness I drove toward Maine's northernmost county. An occasional startled deer or a white-throated sparrow's lonely call intensified the forest solitude. Abruptly I broke out into Aroostook's open fields. Tractors and planters rumbling over furrows killed the stillness I left behind. To me the fresh-turned earth smelled as good as land to a sailor long at sea. Here spread a new and different kingdom, governed by potatoes, worked by sturdy folk even now settling a frontier. In the Heart of Spud Land Late spring had just melted snow that covers Aroostook half the year; so farmers sped the planting of their soil. I raced the June sun into the heart of the spud country. Woodland still grips nearly two-thirds of the county, larger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. Yet its tilled strip grows 90 percent of Maine's potatoes. And this one county's yield is more than the entire potato crop of any other State (map, page 463; 464). In the one-crop realm some 94,000 people live, work, talk, eat, dream, gamble spuds. Yearly yields and changing prices can mean the difference between Cadillacs and worn out shoes. Warm days, cool nights, and even rainfall favor the region between June and September. Blessed with these ideal growing conditions, it has never experienced complete crop fail ure. Remoteness from principal consumers, however, makes transportation a problem. Aroostook's pay dirt is silt-loam soil of limestone origin. One hundred and twenty miles long and a fourth as wide, the potato empire runs north and south close to New Brunswick's border on the east. The clear ing carved from heavy forest reveals ground virtually perfect for its purpose (page 472). On acreage about one-fourth the area of Rhode Island, Aroostook in 1947 grew a bushel for every two and a half persons in the United States; it produced nearly one seventh of the Nation's 384,407,000 bushels. I stopped at a farm near Presque Isle to watch a tractor-drawn planter. In a single operation the machine dribbled sliced tubers and fertilizer along rows which its disk plows covered with soil (page 468). "The seed," said farmer Kilpatrick, run ning his hand over cut-up spuds, "is prac tically disease-free. It was tested in Florida last winter and certified by Government in spectors. This year I'll use about 600 barrel fuls on my 60 acres." And he hoped to harvest 9,000 barrels or better. For seed, potatoes were quartered, halved, or left whole, depending on their original size (page 468). Some farms relied on mechanical slicers, but I found Claude Tardif and his wife on the manual job. They sat inside a barn at the end of an inclined trough full of potatoes. With automatic skill each pushed spud after spud against a vertical blade fixed in a block of wood. The Tardifs didn't raise potatoes; they just cut them up for other farmers. Moving from place to place, they operated as a team on piecework basis. When I saw them, they had knifed their way through 7,700 pecks for a personal slice of $365. Farm to Live, but Live to Fish A brief lull comes to the spud country after planting. Aroostook goes fishing. Brook trout tempt farmers to swirling waters still frigid from winter's ice and snow. In numer ous ponds and lakes they troll for fresh-water salmon or fighting togue (lake trout). About this time I drove to Fort Fairfield to interview a big-scale potato grower. I found his office locked. "If it's the boss you'd like to see," said a workman, "my bet is that he's gone out fishing." The telephone waked me early next morn ing. Sleepily I accepted a potato salesman's invitation to try for salmon the following day. As I dressed, I began to realize that most Aroostookians raise spuds to live, but really live to fish. The waitress who served my breakfast stared with a faraway look through the win dow into a raw drizzle. "Gee, I'd like to go fishing," she sighed against the pane. "Weather's just right for it." While having a haircut, I learned that Ed had wonderful luck at the lake; Pearley pulled a two-pounder out of the river; Sam planned a trip to the Allagash. I had to go fishing in self-defense.