PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Potato farmers depend upon Steve Johnson. At the least they did for 34 years. Now Johnson, who retired on June 30, is taking his experience to different elements of the world.
Johnson, who was a crops specialist with the College of Maine Cooperative Extension in Presque Isle, has informed farmers when to plant, how one can deal with ailments and pests, how one can correctly retailer crops and launched know-how to growers. Although he has left Aroostook, he isn’t leaving agriculture. He has an excessive amount of invested.
Johnson’s contributions that prolonged past his day-to-day work with farmers have ensured the continued success of potato farming around the globe, and made potatoes attainable as a staple meals even in poorer international locations.
He has harvested 33 consecutive crops of analysis potatoes, and pioneered an “digital potato” that grew to become the business commonplace for calibrating harvesters to scale back bruising the crop within the area. He additionally has shared his experience all through Maine and internationally, in locations like Australia, Guatemala and Macedonia.
Johnson, who lives on the coast along with his spouse, Jennifer, has particularly loved working immediately with growers and growing ties with them. Although various different job gives got here his manner, he selected to stay with the Extension as a result of he felt he was making a distinction.
“I’ve been to weddings and funerals, and I’ve been at their tables and had calls in the midst of the night time when issues aren’t working,” he stated. “It’s much more than punching a clock. It’s private.”
Now, he can do what he desires to do as a substitute of what he has to do. This winter he’ll return to Australia to work with the seed business there, and he plans different initiatives to assist individuals study extra in regards to the science of agriculture.
Johnson’s work has garnered awards from the Nationwide Security Council, Potato Affiliation of America and Maine Potato Board, amongst others. In 2000 he grew to become an Extension professor and, in recognition of his profession, UMaine named him Extension professor and crops specialist emeritus.
However what means most to him is bringing American know-how to locations on this planet that actually want it, which he has completed as a volunteer scientist in a number of international locations.
Advances in potato storage have resulted in temperature- and moisture-controlled environments that imply spuds might be saved effectively for a very long time. However in Guatemala’s mountainous terrain, the place there is no such thing as a electrical energy, Johnson labored with subtle mild storage, an financial possibility that retains potatoes in oblique mild with good air flow.
The idea is big there, as a result of if the individuals don’t have potatoes, they don’t eat, he stated.
He introduced a few of Maine’s potato varieties to Macedonia and the Dominican Republic, labored with potato processors in New Zealand and wrote a program to foretell late blight in Australia. He launched mechanical planters to farmers “down below.” For the reason that introduction of COVID-19, he has coordinated worldwide Zoom classes the place growers can share information throughout borders.
“That’s the form of stuff that I’ve completed for years — bringing the know-how that we’ve right here to [other places],” he stated. “A lot of it wasn’t heard of years in the past, and now we’ve introduced it in and it’s commonplace process. It’s fairly cool.”
Labor shortages and local weather change are amongst challenges dealing with the potato business and all of agriculture.
Similar to within the U.S. and Canada, growers in Australia and New Zealand have hassle discovering staff. When Johnson was there within the mid-Nineties, farmers would go to the pubs and spherical up individuals who wished to work. Now they depend upon younger individuals backpacking by way of the nation, who work for a bit to earn cash after which transfer on.
Although there are individuals who don’t consider it, the local weather is altering, Johnson stated. Maine’s climate is getting hotter and rains are extra intense, but intervals of drought are on the rise.
“Everybody’s getting a sample. We’ve not too long ago seen some Augusts that Jesus and Steve can each stroll throughout the Aroostook River, and typically it’s spilling the banks. We have been definitely extra predictable years in the past,” he stated.
The excellent news is growers coping with drought are irrigating extra, and potato breeders at UMaine and Presque Isle’s Aroostook Farm are exploring drought-resistant varieties. The Russet Burbank is common as a result of it’s constant in changeable circumstances, and there are additionally African varieties that may survive quite a lot of environmental abuse.
But it surely’s tough to organize for local weather change as a result of nobody is aware of precisely what the adjustments will likely be, Johnson stated. Although farmers are involved about it, the realities of gasoline prices, labor, fixing tools and advertising and marketing the crop put local weather worries on the again burner.
Nonetheless, he thinks potatoes will stay Aroostook County’s No. 1 crop. Although there could also be fewer farmers, there are extra giant farms which are growing their acreage. Growers are planting earlier and have greater tools, and so they’re delving into soil chemistry and different agricultural know-how like by no means earlier than.
“I count on the potato to reign supreme,” he stated. “Maine is all the time going to be a [good] storage space. I feel that certainly one of our strengths is storing and delivering potatoes 12 months of the yr.”