Farming Magazine - June, 2010

FEATURES

From Potato Chips to Potato Vodka

A lot of passion + a little Internet = a new market
By Kathleen Hatt
Donnie Thibodeau with a 50-pound bag of potatoes for the restaurant market.
Photos by Kathleen Hatt.

When Donnie Thibodeau’s father Larry first saw the Saco River Valley farm with corn growing 9 feet high, he wondered whether potatoes, too, would grow as well in its sandy, rock-free soil. A lifelong potato broker from Presque Isle in Maine’s famous potato growing Aroostook County, Larry was just passing through when he learned of the 250-acre farm for sale in the southwestern Maine town of Fryeburg. He consulted his friend and business partner, Tim Thompson, who assured him that disposing of the farm’s 100 head of black Angus and the barn full of hay would be no problem. In 1965, in a matter of a few weeks, the two had bought the property and begun raising potatoes for chipping. By 1967, the farm had its first potato storage facility, shared with seven other contract growers.

Little of the farm’s spirit has changed in the years since 1977, when Thibodeau and his wife Brenda moved to Green Thumb Farms to take over. The farms’ 35 workers are still considered family. All have health insurance after their first year, share in the farm’s profits and participate in 40l(k) plans. Many have worked with the Thibodeaus for over 20 years. Earle Towle, farm manager, arrived as a 20-year-old 35 years ago. Orman McAllister, storage manager, came at the farm’s inception 40 years ago. Eight more people come from Guatemala year after year to work from October to May in the packing shed.

What has changed over the years are the farm’s acreage and its markets. The farm is now almost eight times its original size, and of the 2,000 acres currently under cultivation, 640 are in potatoes. Dried beans (350 acres) and dried corn (650 acres) are grown as rotation crops, and tall fescue and Kentucky bluegrass for landscapers and sports fields fills another 200 acres.

Tractor trailer loads of potatoes for the consumer market leave Green Thumb Farms daily. Every other week, 45,000 pounds of potatoes go to Cold River Vodka Distillery in Freeport, Maine.

While the majority (65 percent) of the farm’s round white potatoes are shipped to consumer markets such as food service and chain stores, and some of the remaining 35 percent are processed as peelers for restaurant use, the rest have found a unique new market in this country’s only ground to glass distillery.

Growing potatoes

Most of the potatoes grown at Green Thumb Farms for the past 20 years are round white Norwis, also known as FL657s. Their thin skins and tendency to bruise are not a problem in the farms’ sandy, rock-free soil. Also grown are Red Norlands and a few Yukon Golds, all from Aroostook County seedstock.

Aided by global positioning system (GPS) technology, planting is very precise, and the result is a higher yield with fewer defects. “We have also picked up 10 percent more acreage by using GPS because we are not wasting land,” says Thibodeau.

As the largest producer of Jacob’s Cattle, Yellow Eye and Soldier beans in the northern hemisphere, “Green Thumb Farms are the keepers of the heirloom beans,” says Donnie Thibodeau, shown here in a field of Jacob’s Cattle beans.
Cold River Vodka in Freeport, Maine, utilizes 45,000 pounds of potatoes every two weeks.
Employee Maria Eastman (left) and Margaret Hernandez, a temporary worker from Mexico, work in the packing area.
A Valley Center Pivot irrigation system pumps water from the Saco River onto Green Thumb Farms’ fields. The system has sat idle for the past five years.
A two-row Grimme FT 170S harvester causes minimal potato bruising.

Although an irrigation system is in place, it has not been used in five years. The wet 2009 summer left standing water in some fields, and the Thibodeaus were surprised to have a decent crop to harvest. Herbicide control was, however, lost to the rains. As a result, their four-row Lockwood harvester had some problems separating grass from potatoes. “Fortunately,” says Thibodeau, “only .5 percent of the potatoes went out the back.”

Plans are to expand production of organically certified potatoes at Green Thumb Farms. As of 2009, red potatoes are being grown organically on 5 acres, and 10 acres of Yukon Golds are in transition. In addition, Jacob’s Cattle beans are being grown organically on 5 acres.

Green Thumb Farms’ other crops

As the largest producer of Jacob’s Cattle, Yellow Eye and Soldier beans in the northern hemisphere, “We are the keepers of the heirloom beans,” says Thibodeau. Corn, which is sold dried and cracked, is grown as a rotation crop for both beans and potatoes.

Turf is Green Thumb Farm’s newest crop, and the Thibodeaus launched it in typical Green Thumb Farms’ fashion, with marketing considerations first. A sales force was in place six months before turf was ready to ship. “You can’t hold on to product. You have to convert it to cash,” he says. “The only three things that will get you a market are extremely good service, extremely good quality and a very competitive price.”

A big, fat failure

No matter how well planned, not every Green Thumb Farms venture is a success.

Convinced that BelRus, a dark skinned, gorgeous russet-type potato, could be their next big thing, the Thibodeaus planted 40 acres in 1978. That year’s yield of beautiful BelRus potatoes was larger than the farm’s then-average of 350 bags an acre, so they ramped up processing facilities to deal with the next year’s crop, which including the purchase of a $45,000 Hagen sizer.

“The next year we planted 160 acres of BelRus. Instead of the beautiful potatoes we’d harvested the experimental year, we got little brown ones. Most were B grade at best.” Yield was only 120 bags an acre, significantly below the farm’s average.

Although it took an FHA loan and seven years of hard work, “we finally farmed our way out of that one,” says Thibodeau. “We repaid every cent.”

Increasing the market for potatoes

Always searching for ways to add value to Green Thumb Farms’ crops, Thibodeau brainstormed with his brother Lee. They remembered tales their dad had told of an old copper still and the potato vodka made there during Prohibition. So, Thibodeau began searching on the computer and discovered information about distilling on the Internet.

They presented their idea to their friend Bob Harkins, who replied, “I think this vodka idea could work!” They found a place where they could learn about distillation, and the three, together with friend Chris Dowe, set out for a week-long course at Alltech in Lexington, Ky. There they learned all about the process of distillation. However, no one there had practical knowledge about the fermentation of potatoes. Dowe, who had experience with fermenting beer in microbreweries, sought more information. He called friends in Germany, read books, talked with professors and searched the Internet. Next, he looked for a still. Then he began practicing potato fermentation. By November 2006, Green Thumb Farms was ready to launch its Cold River Vodka. The first Cold River potato vodka was bottled in the farm’s own Freeport, Maine, distillery. Located on the main road not far from L.L. Bean’s flagship store, the Cold River Vodka distillery is 65 miles from Green Thumb Farms.

While Green Thumb Farms’ core business remains 3, 5, and 10-pound consumer bags of potatoes, it also ships 45,000 pounds of potatoes to its distillery every two weeks. Depending on solids and fermentation, it takes 13 to 15 pounds of potatoes to make one 750 milliliter bottle of vodka. By September 2009, about 11,000 cases of 12 bottles of vodka had been distilled.

“Distilling vodka works so well for us,” says Thibodeau, “because we have developed our own product to utilize our number 2 grade potatoes. We like to do everything we can with our own crops, our own products, our own sales force and our own trucks. We also do all our own equipment maintenance.”

Passion and desire

“You’ve got to have passion to be good at what you do,” says Thibodeau. “Passion drives desire, and we have a passion for this. We’ll never retire. And, in 2010, we will have the first organic ground to glass potato vodka in the country. We will do everything from planting potato seeds to bottling vodka, and we will do it all organically.”

Kathleen Hatt is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Farming. She resides in Henniker, N.H. Comment or question? Visit www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.