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'It's millions of dollars sitting there' | Maine potato industry hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic

With much of the food industry closed, potato farmers in Maine haven't been able to sell a big chunk of their harvest from last year.

MAINE, USA — With restaurants, cafeterias, fairs, sporting events, and countless other events closed—or just starting to open with fewer seats—Maine potato farmers are feeling the pressure from the coronavirus pandemic.

Many farmers are trying to sell the larger potatoes they have in stock to retail stores like Hannaford. 

Hannaford has seen success with the Maine product in its 183 stores throughout New England.

"We have bought 500 thousand pounds more than we have normally purchased this time of year," Kim Kuusela, the Local Merchandising Specialist for Hannaford, said.

The grocery store chain has bought 500,000 more pounds of potatoes compared to its usual order this time of year.

Credit: NCM

"It's definitely the driver of local product that is moving for a produce lift in sales," Kuusela said.

But many farmers are not able to repackage for retail sales.

U.S. Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, urging him to help the Maine potato industry.

"It's not so easy to say, 'oh, what we don't sell to McDonald's we are going to sell to Hannaford'... it's a much more complex problem than that," King said to NEWS CENTER Maine.

"We need help, and the reason is that 40 percent of the main potato crop goes into processing, goes into mostly french fries, which mostly go to restaurants and that market has just died as you can tell... and it's cut the demand for the product this year and also for the product next year," Kind said. 

Read King's letter to the USDA:

King got a response from the USDA,  acknowledging his efforts on behalf of potato farmers in Maine. The agency says it will take into consideration his suggestions in the final rulemaking of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program Act.

"Working with the department of agriculture on a whole series of levels basically to provide help by buying potatoes and also some direct help to farmers," King said.

Read the USDA's response to King:

"At what point in time are we storing too much that we are going to end up having to take them to the fields and dispose of them?" director of Sales and Marketing at Greenthumb Farms in Fryeburg Michael Hart said.

Hart says his food service business is down about 70 percent, which represents 45 percent of the farms' overall sales.

"A lot of the sizes that we have for food service don't generally get sold for retail," Hart said.

"And those are the potatoes that we are trying to mitigate our losses and get to the market place. It's millions of dollars sitting there that we are having to continue to manage."

Hannaford tells NEWS CENTER Maine that in an effort to help farmers, it will keep supplementing these potatoes in stores as long as the demand is there. 

The retail store representative says Hannaford is actively seeking relationships with farmers who want to find a different market and see their retail stores as a potential avenue to sell their Maine potatoes during the days of COVID-19.

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At NEWS CENTER Maine, we’re focusing our news coverage on the facts and not the fear around the illness. To see our full coverage, visit our coronavirus section, here: /coronavirus

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