By Jane Lamb
Say what they will about the “two Maines,” there are really three, as a drive north on Interstate 95 clearly illustrates. Notwithstanding arguable differences between settled coast and rural upland, the definable southern third of the state ends a few miles north of Bangor, when it gives way suddenly to endless forest and bogland. Town line markers bear legends like “T1-R 6,” and interchanges connect with lumber and papermill towns hidden somewhere in the woods. The monotony is only relieved – and accentuated – by the far-off blue bulk of Mt. Katahdin arcing tantalizingly out of reach along the horizon as the road curves northeast. Then just as suddenly it descends into Houlton and another Maine altogether, surprisingly cultivated after all that wilderness. While the impersonal interstate heads over the border into Canada, U.S. Route 1, a friendly, two-lane highway, goes straight north through small towns and villages and rolling open farmland, among hills steep enough to require frequent truck lanes – very pretty country.
“It used to be a lot prettier,” says Peter Bondeson, who has been raising potatoes for 30 years in New Sweden, on a farm up the road from the one where he grew up. “Years ago, when I lived in Connecticut, when I came home you could tell when you crossed the Aroostook County line without seeing any signs. Everything was painted up. The farms looked nice. Now you can tell because everything is falling down. The farmers are having a hard time.” The decline of the County’s once-prosperous potato-based economy is well-known, but the financial potential in organic potatoes seems to be a well-kept secret. Bondeson is one of the half-dozen farmers in the area who are exploring it.
In partnership with his son, Sven, and a friend, Eric Margison, Bondeson raised 20 acres of MOFGA-certified organic potatoes this year, along with 10 acres of “commercial” (using chemicals). He has been expanding his organic operation every year since he started it three years ago, when he saw the price another enterprising fellow got for organic potatoes. He began cutting back on commercial production and expects to reduce that acreage another 25 percent next year. He plans to get out of it entirely before long. His son, Sven, has already renounced commercial growing entirely. Why?
“Money,” says Bondeson unequivocally, noting that for himself, it’s too late to worry about the effects of chemicals on his own health. He’s handled them since he was a boy. He points to the high rate of cancer in the County, and the fact that his mother died of it and his father has had it twice. So for Bondeson, it’s more a question of financial survival than physical. “You get lesser yield organically because you can’t use commercial fertilizers, sprays and herbicides,” he says, “But growing organically is probably less expensive [for that reason]. You have to hand weed. It’s a lot more labor, but it’s worth it.” For commercial potatoes, he got $5 per hundredweight this year; for organic potatoes he got $40-50 per hundredweight, an astonishing difference.
A Farming Heritage
Not quite as surprising, but worth noting, is that Bondeson turned to organic farming from a traditional farming background, unlike so many Maine organic farmers who came “back” to the land with idealistic visions from professional urban careers. Although he’s seen a lot of the world through military service and the usual County-man’s youthful stint at Pratt and Whitney in Connecticut in the 1960s, and he loves to travel whenever he can, Bondeson’s roots on the land go back uninterrupted to generations of Swedish farmers on both sides of the family. (Coincidentally, the name Bondeson means farmer’s son in Swedish, says my Scandinavian language informant.) His great-grandparents came to Aroostook County in the 1870s, when a Mr. Thomas was sent to Sweden by the State of Maine to recruit settlers. Some went elsewhere but the Bondesons were among the founders of New Sweden and other Swedish enclaves in the County who became potato farmers. They cleared the forests that once covered the fields that up until recently stretched from horizon to horizon. As farmers are going out of business, the trees are once again taking over, Bondeson observes regretfully, but he remembers as a boy helping his father grub out stumps “that Grampa didn’t get.”
When Bondeson himself came back to the land in 1967, his father was still farming and didn’t have any land to spare. “There wasn’t much land to rent and I ended up getting junk ground nobody else wanted. Now I could go around here and have any farm I want, for nothing. People say, ‘Come and farm my land,’ just to keep the bushes out of it. Very few are farming around here any more. When you can’t make ends meet, the bank forecloses on you.” Bondeson’s big old weathered farmhouse and barns sit on a high ridge, surrounded by fields that slope away in all directions. Here he raises his commercial potatoes and pastures the 20 head of “Heinz 57” beef cattle that produce income and manure for his organic fields. “Manure produces a lot more weeds and you have to work harder,” he says with good humor.
Bondeson rents, or rather “borrows,” the land where he raises his organic crops – onions, wheat and barley as well as potatoes. “I don’t have land on this farm that’s certifiable, that I want to use. A lot of it is certifiable, but it’s not good productive potato land. It’s all clay. The best potato land is good red loam, hardwood land on top of the hills. It’s more productive for crops than land that used to be in spruce or fir or cedar. Potatoes do best in hardwood ground.”
Standard Organic Methods
Bondeson raises potatoes using methods familiar to organic farmers. Soybean meal and fish meal supply nitrogen, and Sul-Po-Mag is a regular supplement. But crop rotation is the most important, economically as well as productively, he says.
“If you don’t rotate and plow in green manure, you can’t get much of a crop organically. You can put in a lot of soybean and fish meal, but it’s expensive,” though it does improve the quality of the crop, he concedes. He seeds a piece of ground with a mix of red and alsike clover and timothy. The first year it comes up in clover, and the following years in timothy, which he takes off as hay. He leaves the ground fallow for two to five years, preferring to leave it for five years if possible.
The major pest any potato farmer has to contend with is the Colorado potato beetle, says Bondeson. He fights it with Bt spray. MOFGA certification permits the use of copper sulfate and copper hydroxide to control blight. “No variety [of potato] is blight-free,” he says. On his commercial fields he uses “something to kill beetles” which could be one of several chemicals, and diquat as a top-killer to prepare for harvesting. This produces the rows and rows of dead, brown potato plants that carpet so many Aroostook County fields in September before the mechanical digger moves through. Bondeson knocks the tops off his organic fields with a beater drawn behind his tractor. The plants die naturally before he goes through with the digger.
All of Bondeson’s potatoes are hand-harvested. “I have a potato harvester, but I haven’t used it for several years. You get a better quality and appearance by hand. You don’t want bruising. They’re worth more money,” he points out. He hires school kids to pick potatoes in the Aroostook County tradition, about the only labor that he, Sven and Margison don’t manage by themselves, though they sometimes hire kids to pull weeds, “if I can find them. The school kids will work, sometimes!”
Only the County high schools open in mid-August nowadays and let out for three weeks during harvest time. For no identifiable reason, the Caribou school system gets out one week earlier than the Washburn school system, their three-week harvest “vacations” overlapping. The grade schools start after Labor Day, like those in the rest of the state, to Bondeson’s regret. “[Middle school kids are] good pickers,” he says. “Freshmen and sophomores are good, too, especially the girls. If I could hire 15 freshman and sophomore girls, I wouldn’t hire a boy. They’re better behaved, don’t throw as many potatoes and sometimes pick more.” School kids as harvesters are going out of style in the County. A lot of parents don’t want their kids out there getting dirty. They won’t let them come, Bondeson says. “Nobody gets rich picking potatoes. A lot of kids that come out, all they earn in a day is enough to buy their gloves and their lunches and a few bucks besides. Then they go home at night and leave their brand new pair of gloves somewhere in the field and have to buy another pair. It’s not a real moneymaking deal for them but it could be if they paid attention.”
Bondeson remembers when families picked potatoes together to buy school clothes for the winter. Parents have more money today, he says, and a lot of kids are even willing to do with less if they don’t have to work. “The work ethic isn’t there. When I was in school it was not how much money you could make, it was can I pick more than my friend – competition all day long, to see who could pick the most. We wanted to get paid, of course, but we didn’t do it just for the money.”
Organic Market is Growing
The market for organic potatoes is expanding significantly, just as it is for other organically-grown food crops. Bondeson sells his through various food co-ops and wholesale outlets in Boston, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. He’s hoping to break into the chain store market as well. Although the current practice is to count potato yield by the hundredweight, Bondeson still thinks in terms of barrels, he says. A barrel holds 165 pounds. Last year his fields yielded a little better than 100 barrels per acre. This year the July drought prevented a heavy set and his yield was a little less.”They’re nice potatoes, but not a lot of them.”
Bondeson raises the same potato varieties organically as he does commercially – reds, yellows, russets, whites, for early and later harvest. His favorite is the Chaleurs, developed at the University of Fredericton, a white variety that “sets light but is real good eating.” Yukon Gold is the earliest, the white Kennebec is also early, and Carola, another yellow, is late. He raises Cherry Red, Red Gold, Shepody, a long white, Tobique, from the University of North Dakota – white with splashes of pink – and a few All-blues – “blue skin, blue flesh, the ugliest looking potato, I think. I was going to plant some All-reds, but I couldn’t find any seeds. Maybe next year,” Bondeson says, a small grin revealing the quiet sense of humor that seasons his love of experimenting.
Organic grain, so often sought by Maine farmers who want to raise organic livestock, is so far an uncertain proposition, Bondeson says: “Last year I had organic grain and it didn’t sell for much money. This year I had some, but if I can’t sell it for more than last year it’s not worth the trouble.” If the price differential is anywhere near that between organic and non-organic potatoes, it may have discouraged would-be buyers. “Somewhere, they’re going to have to pay more for it,” Bondeson adds. “Maybe I just didn’t hit the right market.”
Though organic potatoes have shown Peter Bondeson a route toward survival in Aroostook County’s agricultural decline, it’s not everybody’s solution. He’s not sure what his 22-year-old son will do. “Things are going to change for him as they have changed for me,” he says. He remembers when church didn’t start on Sunday until the farmers were ready. Supper wasn’t eaten until the farmers were ready. “Today, there’s not enough farmers to make any difference. It’s the 99 percent of the rest of the people in town that aren’t farmers that decide whether school gets out or not. The farmers have their say, but there are no numbers, no power any more. When no one will pick potatoes any more – hopefully I’ll be out of it by that time,” he muses.
With the development of large-scale agribusiness, farm machinery has changed to match. “They’ve gone from a 30 horsepower tractor to 150, which in my size of operation is of little value,” Bondeson points out. You can still get a small tractor, but they’re not readily available. We use a lot of older ones, tear them down, rebuild them, put them back together.” He chuckles when asked about the huge machines with their state-of-the-art accessories. “ I have a tractor that has a cab and an air conditioner and a radio.The radio doesn’t work and the air conditioner quit and I never fixed either one.”
As for farming in Aroostook County, he says, “I think that unless something else comes in here to buy potatoes, it’s going to continue to go backwards. They’re talking about a processing plant coming in here, which could help hold the acreage up. That’s probably the biggie. That’s what they need. The fresh market is in competition with the rest of the country.” Bondeson doesn’t see any point in blaming Canada. “It’s probably no different from the Florida tomato growers blaming the Mexicans. There’s as many potatoes that this country ships into Canada as what Canada ships into here. We’re just on the wrong end of the stick. Out west, our western potato growers ship into western Canada. Here, eastern Canada ships into New England markets.”
Bondeson can’t see where GATT does much good. “I don’t pay much attention to them hassling about potatoes coming and going. I’ve had less interest in it in the last few years. I want to get out of it anyway and get more into the organic. Canada doesn’t seem to bother us much so far, although there are some organic potatoes coming in here from Canada. It will be a slow change. It always is. Things change slowly and everyone sort of becomes accustomed to it as they do. So I don’t want anything to do with commercial potatoes. I’ll just raise organic.”
Always an Adventurer
Bondeson’s acceptance of the inevitability of change, however slow, is part of his willingness always to be ready to move in search of it, a trait he says he inherited from his ancestors. The Swedes who were recruited to populate northern Maine in the 19th century didn’t all come here, and many didn’t stay. A lot went south, west, to Alaska. “They were always looking for something new,” he says. “That’s the Viking in them.”
With his tall, rugged frame, his thick, graying blond hair and strongly-chiseled, well-tanned features, his economy of words and quiet reserve, he seems the archetypal Viking himself. Is he a Viking? “Well, I guess so,” he admits, grinning. “I like to move around.”
Bondeson, an inveterate traveler, was one of the group that went to Cuba with Richard Rudolph last winter (MOF&G, June-August 1997), where he was impressed with the farming operations and the people. “I didn’t know what to expect,” he says. “I thought it would be more of a third world country than it was. I think they are doing very well for themselves. I think Fidel has done more for Cuba than most other countries have done [for their people]. There’s more starvation in Mexico than in Cuba. It’s just that there’s no hard money in Cuba. That’s what we measure everything by.” He thinks if there was, the Cubans would likely begin using more chemicals again. He’s hoping to go back to Cuba again this winter if the trip materializes.
Serious though he is about a strong work ethic, Bondeson is more relaxed about taking time off than most farmers. He finds a way to save the money and just takes the time to travel, any season of the year. “You never get caught up in farming. If you don’t take a week and do something or go somewhere, you’ll never get it. You try to get caught up, go, come back and work like hell again.” He’s happy to take advantage of an open invitation to spend a couple of midwinter weeks in Florida, but he visits his relatives in Sweden only in summer. “I don’t care to go over there in the winter,” he says. “It’s just another pile of snow. I get enough of that here.”
What he likes about traveling is to see the land and talk with the people. “One day in a city is enough for me,” he says. “When we travel in Sweden, it’s all out in the country somewhere. I have relatives all over Sweden. But if you ever get a chance to go, skip Sweden and go to Norway. It’s a much more beautiful country, but don’t tell the Swedes that!” A lot of Sweden and Norway look like Aroostook County, says Peter Bondeson, who may have figured out a way to keep its farmland viable – with organic potatoes.
Jane Lamb, formerly of Brunswick, Maine, is now retired in California.