I wrote this for my former employer while visiting northern Maine. I like to keep my finger in things. :)

By Kristine A. Harger
Special to The Star-Herald

PRESQUE ISLE – The Maine Potato Board approved a $1.4 million budget for 2009-2010 at its July 17 meeting. The spending plan represents a 5.4 percent drop from the 08-09 budget.

For the potato board, conservative budgeting isn’t anything new.

“We try to address changing needs and make adjustments as necessary,” said Executive Director Don Flannery, “but unless there’s a special project, there’s not any dramatic changes from year to year. And we don’t commit funds unless we think we’re going to get (the money).”

Some of the money Flannery is expecting the board to receive includes a $125,000 “specialty crop” grant through the state Department of Agriculture. The funding is actually federal money that is part of the U.S. Farm Bill, under which potatoes are considered a smaller scale or “specialty” crop.

The bulk of the grant money — $70,000 — will be used for “precision agriculture,” or using technology to assist growers with projects such as pesticide/fungicide spray schedules. Another $50,000 is committed to the Porter Farm for research there, and the remaining $6,000 will support the disease testing lab.

These projects, Flannery said, are budgeted separately from other research grant costs so they can be dropped if the money is not received. “But we’re pretty sure we’re getting at least ($125,000),” he said.

The two main sources of income – the potato tax and Big E baked potato sales – remain stable. For now.

The Big E is an agricultural/commercial fair held in Springfield, Mass., that attracts about 1 million people each September. The Maine Potato Board has sold “loaded” baked potatoes there for years, as both a source of income and a marketing outreach. Last year the board budgeted $395,000 in Big E revenue, but brought in $401,700.

“Weather is a big part of it,” Flannery said of Big E income, which is budgeted for $400,000. “But (the money’s) great to have and it’s very beneficial to the industry.

“Of our total revenue – grants, everything – 38-40 percent comes from the Big E … it allows us to continue services to growers.”

As for potato tax collections, the board budgeted $605,730, even though $645,026 was brought in last year.

“You never know what’s going to happen,” Flannery said of the tax revenue. The number is based on the 10-year average of tax revenues, the 10-year yield average and a “guess” at the number of planted acres. “Those first two are solid numbers,” he said. “But it doesn’t do any good to be unrealistic.”

According the USDA crop report, growers planted 56,000 acres this year, the same as 2008, but the budget is based on 55,000 planted acres.

“We aren’t going to harvest 56,000 acres,” Flannery said. “By being conservative on acres, it helps us.”

One item that won’t show up in this year’s budget but is coming next year, is the board’s “takeover” of the Maine Seed Farm. The legislation transferring ownership of the farm, which is both a research and commercial operation, goes into effect Sept. 12. Right now, Flannery, Director of Development Tim Hobbs and Agricultural Engineer George McLaughlin are spending time at the farm in Portage, learning how it operates and co-managing it with the state Department of Agriculture.

“It’s going to make a lot of things easier and more responsive,” Flannery said of the transfer. “We need to find ways to make the farm profitable, either by increasing revenues, decreasing expenses, or some combination of both.”

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