PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Standing in the middle of a barren farm field in northern Maine, Greg Porter walks the rows of dirt here with brown paper bags in one hand and white wooden stakes wrapped around his other.
Meticulously, he paces across this farm field, opening each numbered bag as he goes, marking down its location on a spreadsheet so that come harvest time in the fall, he knows exactly what he’s looking at.
Porter is part farmer and part researcher. He studies agriculture at the University of Maine in Presque Isle, a small rural community home to about 8,000 people that once was one of the nation’s largest producers of potatoes. They still produce plenty of spuds here, but Greg Porter isn’t farming potatoes for the money. He’s farming them for the future.
“We’re planting 45,000 different individual varieties of potatoes in this field. 45,000!” he remarked as he pulled out another handful of brown bags from his old GMC pickup truck.
Each brown bag Porter opens is filled with about 50 tubers; they’re essentially tiny potatoes. He and his research team have spent two years raising them in a greenhouse, combining thousands of different variations of potato parents to make potato offspring. Essentially, they’re trying to create the most efficient, most delicious potato out there.
These days though, the work in these fields is taking on new importance. With farmers across the country increasingly facing tougher growing conditions because of climate change, the hope is that somewhere in this field they harvest a new kind of potato that’s more resistant to climate change. Some may be able to tolerate higher temperatures and others may be able to handle more moisture.
“We’re developing DNA-based tools to stack the deck in our favor as we select them,” Porter added.
Last year, the potatoes industry in the United States was worth about $4 billion. All the more reason people like Don Flannery with the Maine Potato Board are paying close attention to the work Greg Porter and his team are doing.
“Potatoes are a high-input crop. It takes a lot of money to raise an acre of potatoes,” Flannery said sitting in his office surrounded by various pieces of potato memorabilia.
Aside from more extreme droughts and rain events, many of the varieties of potatoes being cultivated here need less fertilizer. With inflation and rising fertilizer prices, reducing any kind of costs for farmers could mean the difference between losing money and breaking even.
“If you’re not looking ahead and being proactive you’re usually behind in being reactive. Those that are gonna be successful in our business are the ones looking ahead,” Flannery added.
Back in the field, Porter and his team have started sending their potatoes to farms across the country to see how they hold up to growing conditions in states like Florida, Ohio, Michigan and Indiana. The hope is to help potato farmers across this country produce the best tasting, most lucrative crops possible.
“The hope is we produce a few out of our 45,000 that have enough good characteristics that they’re worthy of commercial investment.”