CARIBOU, Maine — Maine's potato farmers are coming off a good year, and Robbie Irving knows it.
"Early on in our harvesting season, we certainly knew that we were in for a good one," Irving, vice president of Irving Farms, said.
His Caribou farm wasn't the only one digging up a bumper crop in 2021.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture numbers show potato production in Maine grew 39 percent compared to the year before.
But that wasn't the case everywhere. Yields in top potato-producing states like Idaho and Washington fell 4 percent and 6 percent, respectively.
"There was a much more stressful, hot, difficult year," Gregory Porter, Professor of Agronomy at the University of Maine, said of last year's growing conditions in the West. That combination of factors created an enviable position for Maine growers.
"They've been able to ship some potatoes west to meet some of the demand," Porter said.
But Maine growers didn't just get lucky. Porter says farmers in the state have been laying the groundwork for years to strengthen production. That includes things such as irrigation, targeted fertilizing, and planting new potato varieties.
A standout among those varieties is the Caribou Russet. It was developed through a years-long process at the University of Maine, with local growers in mind.
"When we get a dry, stressful year, it holds up much better than our standard French fry variety, Russet Burbank," Porter said.
And the Caribou Russet is now out of the greenhouse and growing in Caribou potato fields. For Irving farms, the name alone brings benefits.
"When people buy that, they know that they're getting it from a small, local farmer," Irving said.
It's already gaining a reputation for high yields of quality potatoes, and businesses are paying attention.
99 Restaurants has 103 locations in the Northeast. It now exclusively sources potatoes from Irving Farms, and every baked potato it serves is a Caribou Russet.
"We're just excited for the opportunity," Irving said. "We all want to see this succeed, and we work really hard at it."
Back at the University of Maine, Porter's work is not slowing down. He's already searching for the next variety that can help growers keep production high, despite changing climate conditions.
"It's a very competitive world," Porter said. "A lot of people produce potatoes."