Climate mapping helps these Aroostook seed potatoes travel thousands of miles
BRIDGEWATER, Maine – Winter Mondays begin with weather maps at a farm in Aroostook County.
The ritual begins just after dawn at the Wood Prairie Family Farm in Bridgewater, which sells certified organic seed potatoes. Before shipping products to buyers in places like California, Kansas, Alaska and New York, employees must decide if shipping is safe and in which direction.
It is common for farmers to study climatological patterns for planting and harvesting. But as one of the few mail order shippers of seed potatoes in the country, shipping 10 months of the year, the farm needs to determine the weather to stay in business. You can’t afford to ship when there’s a chance the order will freeze en route, said farm founder Jim Gerritsen.
“The vast majority of our shipments go out in the coldest months of the year. If we didn’t pay attention to the weather, the consequences would be catastrophic and would eat up most of our annual farm income,” Gerritsen said.
The farm ships from September through July, but January and the first half of February are the toughest months, he said. Whether it’s a small sample box for a beginner gardener or hundreds of pounds for a farmers market grower, seed potatoes need to arrive undamaged.
The dropship farm ships approximately 150,000 to 200,000 pounds of certified organic seed potatoes per year to home gardeners and larger growers. Their 21 strains include Rose Gold, Red Cloud, Southern Belle, All Blue, Russian Banana Fingerling, King Harry, and Prairie Blush.
On Mondays and weekdays, Gerritsen must first determine if the shipment can leave Aroostook County. He spends several hours poring over the latest National Weather Service climatological maps and making weather forecasts along US Postal Service and FedEx shipping routes.
“Nobody else here in Maine feels the same need to be so obsessed with national weather. Most of our competitors only ship seed potatoes for a few weeks in spring after the weather has softened,” said Gerritsen.
It logs high and low temperatures for northern points such as Bangor, Portland, Montpelier, Boston, Hartford, New York City, and Buffalo. Those early warning points here can indicate upcoming cold weather, he said.
A seed potato order going south can still freeze somewhere along the way. If they can safely get it out of Aroostook County and drive down the Atlantic Seaboard, the rest is easy, but if the South snows, it’ll get colder, Gerritsen said.
Despite efforts to forecast weather and shipping large orders of potatoes in double crates lined with one inch of foam and labeled “Do Not Freeze,” there can be a few odd frozen shipments each year, he said.
Gerritsen founded Wood Prairie more than 40 years ago. When the farm started mail order 35 years ago, there were times when $1,000 worth of perishable products would be shipped only to find the entire batch frozen in transit.
“In a cold January, probably in 1994, the coldest month on record in Caribou, we were paralyzed by cold and were unable to deliver for four consecutive weeks,” said Gerritsen. “Then it took us another month to catch up.”
They’re shipping 10 times what they were shipping back then and have gotten better at deciding when to ship, he said.
Gerritsen calls some states headache states because they are cold targets. He gives this top priority. Orders are packed and shipped on a perfect weather day so they reach their destination before another cold spell hits.
On Monday, Gerritsen watched a broadcast to Kansas. He looked at the northernmost cities, where temperatures of 18 and 21 degrees were forecast, but then pointed to a cold weather pattern that pushed down with temperatures as high as 15 degrees.
The farm didn’t ship to Kansas. If temperatures at a destination drop below 20 degrees, there is a risk of frost, he said.
Next week the farm will begin shipping planned spring orders. The first shipments will go to Florida and Hawaii, followed the following week by Alabama, California and Georgia. Each week after that, a new region opens up, Gerritsen said. Alaska is the last week after Maine on May 1st.
Sometimes buyers request specific shipping times.
“If someone orders and wants their own shipping date, we have to accommodate them,” said Gerritsen.