Twelve Million Pounds of Spuds

That's what the Cranes will harvest, despite labor shortages and environmental concerns. HARVESTING AMERICA PART 1 OF 6

THE Maine license plate on the Crane Brothers' tractor hardly seems appropriate, featuring a lobster and the motto ``Vacationland.'' For here in the middle of a dusty field, men are hard at work harvesting. Now in the thick of their month-long potato harvest, the Cranes are rushing to reap the spuds from the earth before the first freeze in October.

On board a massive, roaring potato harvester, four men quickly pick out rocks, chunks of soil, and vines from potatoes bobbing by on a conveyor belt and emptying into a truck driving alongside. Some spuds are big as grapefruit, others small as golfballs, but most are in between.

The potato harvester works ``like a big vacuum cleaner,'' says Neil Crane, during a quick break. A fan helps pull potatoes onto the conveyor belt once they have been uncovered and put into rows by another noisy machine.

Neil Crane and his brother, Vernon, started Crane Brothers Farm back in 1960. Thirty years later, they're still growing potatoes, alternated with corn, on 500 acres of farmland here in central Maine. The potato harvest starts around September 10 and lasts about a month, depending on the weather. ``There are about 20 digging days,'' says Lois Crane, Neil's wife, who shows a writer around during this busy time.

Comparing Maine to Idaho, Lois says the fields here are spread out. ``Maine has got so much woods and out West it's more open country. The soil [here] is also rockier,'' she adds while driving her pickup a few miles to another field to deliver a ``coffee break'' to the workers. ``I can't see us getting larger,'' she admits.

The varieties of potatoes, specifically ``chip'' potatoes, grown here include Mononas, 657s, 945s, Atlantics, and some ``trials.'' Almost all of the 125,000 hundredweight - 12.5 million pounds - of their own crop will end up as Frito Lay potato chips. Eleven percent of America's potato crop (nearly 340 million hundredweight in 1988) ends up as snack food; 36 percent becomes frozen french fries. Per-capita potato consumption in America is about 123 pounds a year, according to the Denver-based National Potato Board.

Until 1962, Maine was the nation's No. 1 potato producer. Now, up against fiercer competition, it follows Idaho, Washington, and Oregon, according to the National Potato Board.

The number of potato farms in Maine has dropped from 26,000 in 1958 to just 700 today, says Edwin Plissey, a potato specialist at the University of Maine, Orono. The energy crisis of the mid-'70s pushed a lot of small family farms out of the business, says Mr. Plissey. He hosts ``The Potato Picker Special,'' a live call-in show that begins at 4:30 a.m., Thursday through Saturday.

One constant change through the years has been in potato-farming technology. The Cranes have higher yields, fewer workers, and better efficiency as a result.

``When I first started, we were picking by hand into barrels,'' says longtime worker Carroll Buswell from Exeter, Maine. ``We used to have to roll barrels by hand. [Now] it's easier, but you're doin' more with less labor.'' Today, 95 percent of Maine's crop is harvested mechanically, compared with a third of the crop in 1958, says Plissey.

``The controls on this machine are all computerized,'' says Neil Crane, glancing at his tractor. He even has a computer software program to tell him how much pesticide or fungicide to apply, once he's plugged in the relative humidity, rainfall, and temperature. ``The computer tells us whether we need to spray every 10, seven, or five days.'' We used to spray sometimes every seven days, he continues, ``now with the computer program, we sometimes go without spraying.''

``Dad and Neil are always quick to embrace new technology,'' says Jim Crane, Neil's nephew, who's harvesting another field. ``Not bein' afraid of spending money and embracing new technology and equipment'' has kept the business lucrative, says Jim. The harvester costs more than your average house and is used only three weeks a year. ``The Cranes were early adopters'' of new technology, says Plissey, ``and thereby risk-takers.''

Back at one of the three Crane warehouses, where potatoes are being sorted and stored in large crates, Lois Crane explains that because of new warehouse technology ``we can keep better control now - of temperature, moisture.''

Technology has also knocked a few hours off the farmers' workday. ``This place is really run more like a business than a farm,'' says Jim Cranel. ``Four a.m. to 10 at night? We don't do that,'' he adds. They get most Sundays off.

Neil is up at 5 a.m., says his wife Lois. He's out by 6 ``and he doesn't come in until everything is fixed and ready to go in the morning - 7, 8, or 9.'' Machines need to be greased, sometimes repaired. What causes the biggest wear and tear on a tractor? Neil answers dryly: ``Dirt.''

CONSUMERS' growing environmental concerns are a big concern to farmers here. ``There's a lot of hype over it,'' says Plissey. ``There's alarmist activity over materials that are very safe,'' he continues: These days, farmers use ``far less pesticide and fungicide, and it's used more judiciously.''

``We think we're environmentalists,'' says Neil Crane, a former chairman of the National Potato Board. ``In the last five years, we've cut down on spraying.'' Five years ago, equipment was changed to make it more efficient: Sprayers use 10 gallons of material per acre now, down from 30 or 40 gallons in the past.

``The pesticide issue is the main trouble point,'' says Steve Crane, Neil and Lois's son. ``I'm glad they're doing research on them and checking them out, but we don't [use pesticides] unless we have to. It adds to our cost.'' Biological means of pest control, and other alternatives, are being explored.

A more immediate issue for the Cranes is a labor shortage. For the second year in a row they have had to hire migrant workers from Mexico through an agency in El Paso, Texas. ``You can't get people for a month like we used to,'' explains Lois.

But even as field help is declining, interest in full-time farming seems to be rising among young people, after dipping in the late 1970s and early '80s.

``Now there seems to be a tremendous involvement in young, higher-skilled, management-oriented young people with good leadership skills,'' says Plissey. ``They can `elocute' concerns to legislators and see benefits of learning and working together.''

Steve Crane decided to stay with the family farm after graduating from University of Maine, while his sister and brother have moved out of state. ``I was always involved on the farm when I was a young kid,'' he says.

``It feels like you're accomplishing something,'' Steve says of growing a crop. ``You watch it grow, help keep it alive, and harvest it. ... Makes you feel good.''

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