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Maine potato industry uses tech, relies on people

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The Maine Potato Board is proud that the state’s potato industry produces a high-quality product, whether that product is potatoes destined for a restaurant’s French fries, potato chips on supermarket shelves or home made potatoes au gratin. However, before any of these potatoes used can bear the popular red, white and blue State of Maine trademark, they are inspected and must pass requirements stricter than the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s U.S. No. 1 grade.

In addition to producing potatoes they are proud of, in its “Review of The Industry 2016” the Presque Isle, ME-based Maine Potato Board focused on how Maine takes advantage of the availability of technology, yet relies on it is people to grow potatoes.

There is no doubt that over the past few years agriculture has taken advantage of technology. The advanced levels of technological ability have permeated agriculture to the point that it may be taken for granted. For example, growers access weather radar from tractor seats today. They also control and monitor irrigation systems and potato storage systems from wherever they have a “signal.”

Precision agriculture made possible by GPS devices on tractors and equipment is commonplace in the Maine potato industry. It even has growers working with companies that use drones and imaging software to determine the level of virus infection in a potato field.

Not too many years ago a field of potatoes could have had a disease that was known to be caused by bacteria. Today, growers have the ability to determine what family, genus and species to which that bacteria belongs. With DNA sequencing, they can also determine if the bacteria has the same genetic fingerprint as similar bacteria in other parts of the world.

This is good information to have when working out a strategy to manage diseases. Today, growers can diagnose in the field with a simple kit what would have, in the not too distant past, required a laboratory, a technician and a number of days to diagnose.

But the Maine Potato Board stresses that there are some things that information and technology cannot replace. Intuition, innovation, compassion, imagination, creativity, wisdom and desire are a few things that are still necessary to grow potatoes.

“We have made great strides in our ability to generate information and create amazing technology, but we still need a grower,” the 2016 review stated. “We still need actual human beings to grow potatoes. The Maine potato industry has some of the most capable, compassionate, creative, innovative and imaginative people in the world. This is one of the reasons why we have a commercial potato industry in Maine that is well over 200 years old. Agricultural technology will continue to improve and information will continue to increase, but they are still just tools that need a farmer to apply them for the benefit of us all.”