by Lindsay LaJoie, RD
Growing up on a family farm meant changing roles with the seasons, and changing with the times.
For over 100 years, the LaJoie family has been growing potatoes in Aroostook County in Northern Maine. What was once a small farm with fewer than 10 acres has grown into a 1,300-acre operation, and as you can imagine, many aspects of production have changed. My father is a fourth-generation potato grower, and even in the last few decades, he has witnessed a multitude of technological advancements that have led to the growth and efficiency of our farm today. While the horse-drawn plows and potato barrels have faded from the images of the yearly harvest, replaced by high-powered tractors and mechanical potato harvesters, one thing has remained constant throughout the generations: family.
My father and his seven siblings—one brother and six sisters—grew up working on my grandfather’s farm, and as my aunts will tell you, the girls were always the fastest when it came to hand-picking barrels of potatoes. After studying Diesel Technology for a year after high school and spending a few years as a truck driver, my father ultimately returned to Grand Prix Farms, my grandfather’s 400-acre operation, to settle into his own farming career. He recalls using tractors and equipment built in the 1950s well into the 1980s, with little change over that 30-year span. In the 1990s, he witnessed the beginning of a stream of innovations that would forever change his life as a farmer. No longer did he have to rely on CB radios or listening for the sound of another tractor in a nearby field to communicate with my uncle and grandfather—he could pick up his cell phone anywhere, anytime. In the year 2000, when my grandparents bought us a computer capable of Internet connection, the family business was truly revolutionized.
It was at a young age that my siblings and I learned our own roles on the family farm. We’d wake up early, put on tiny work gloves and boots, and ride in dad’s pickup truck to the potato house. There, we stood on step stools to be able to see the potatoes whizzing past on the fast-moving conveyor belts, working alongside our senior family members, and reveling in the nods and smiles of approval from our grandfather. I never knew what happened to the potatoes once they were hauled away in huge 18-wheelers, just that it was my job to watch the conveyor and pull out any bad potatoes—along with rocks or any non-potato objects. At the time when our new computer came along, the market was tough, and my father was looking to find a new niche. In a career where success can be determined by something as uncontrollable as the weather, and with a wife and four young children to support, my father began to view the Internet—a foreign concept—as an opportunity.
Most of what I remember about using the Internet at the age of 10 is that I could play a lot of computer games, and my mother couldn’t use the phone while I was online. My father, a man who once opted out of taking a high school computer course because he “never thought [he’d] need it,” was initially weary of online communication and its potential implications. He remembers finally finding the courage to contact people on the Internet, hoping to sell a new product he was interested in growing: blue potatoes. He grew small amounts at first, starting with five acres, and increasing to 10 acres the following season. These potatoes—blue on the outside and the inside—were sold to brokers in the beginning, until finally one of my father’s emails was forwarded to a buyer of raw product for Terra Chips. The buyer came to visit the farm, and soon after, my grandfather was trucking a sample of blue potatoes to the Terra Chip factory in New Jersey. The full load was sold, and a long-term relationship began.
In 2007, our family farm was restructured to create LaJoie Growers, LLC, which is now an operation co-owned by my father and his brother, nephew, and cousin. Previously, the farm was structured in such a way that equipment and labor were shared, but the crop belonged to the individual farmer. This could be a problem if tending and harvesting schedules led to a great yield for one individual, and failed crops for another. Restructuring the company allowed for gains (and losses) to be shared, solidifying the teamwork that is needed to succeed in a large agricultural operation. But the owners are not the only members of the LaJoie Growers team. My grandparents instilled the essence of the family farm in their eight children and 26 grandchildren, myself included. The family is continuing to grow, and each of us contributes to the farm in any way that we can, even if right now it can only be love and support sent up from Boston.
Today, LaJoie Growers, LLC grows 220-acres of blue potatoes, all of which are dedicated to Terra Chips (as seen on JetBlue!) or as seed for next year’s crop. Over the years the scope has widened beyond potatoes to include multiple varieties of beets, carrots, and parsnips, all of which are also made into Terra Chips. There is no question that growing up on the family farm taught me about the importance of hard work, dedication, and perseverance, and I am incredibly grateful for that. Even though I am not at home to work anymore, I observe the business continuing to evolve by growing new vegetables and using GPS technology in tractors to maximize efficiency, and I am inspired to seek opportunities, take chances, and be innovative. Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll find my blue potato.
Lindsay LaJoie is a Registered Dietitian and second year biochemical & molecular nutrition student. Her favorite way to eat potatoes is any way her grandmother cooks them.