The LaJoies in Van Buren, a fifth-generation family of potato farmers, have remained competitive in a challenging market.
Visitors driving through Maine can expect to see pine forests, fields of blueberries, lobster boats and maybe a moose if lucky. Continue driving three hours north of Bangor and eventually arrive at the St. John’s River Valley in Aroostook County, Maine – New England’s northernmost county. Here, visitors are more likely to see a combine harvester at work in an endless field of oats or thousands of acres of potatoes.
There are over 8,000 farms in Aroostook County. It is home to some of Maine’s most fertile farm land. The LaJoies in Van Buren, a fifth-generation family of potato farmers, have remained competitive in a challenging market. They now farm approximately 1,300 acres and provide potatoes for every sector of the potato industry. They have added multiple varieties of potatoes and additional crops since William LaJoie first established the home farm in 1901. Each generation of LaJoies since has adapted to a rapidly developing world that has forever changed the way farmers grow and get produce to market. Using GPS-guided tractors to plant crops and selling over 5 million pounds of potatoes and beets a year would be unimaginable to that first generation of LaJoies.
Prior generations of LaJoies
William LaJoie, family patriarch, bought 200 acres and established the home farm at Cyr Plantation in 1901. Over the years he cleared the fields of rocks by hand, using sticks of dynamite to break up the largest ones. With horse and wagon he planted potatoes in every available inch of tillable soil. William’s son, Gilbert, took over the operation of the farm in the 1940s. At that time he farmed 38 acres of potatoes on 125 acres of land. Gilbert died at the early age of 45.
Gilbert’s son Normand took over the farm at 17 years old. In 1966 his was one of the first farms around to utilize a conventional potato harvester instead of hand-picking with barrels. In the 1970s, he responded to hard times in the potato industry by starting a trucking company to help supplement the farm’s income. He also drove loaded trucks up down the eastern seaboard during this time, using the CB radio handle “Super Frog.” He was known as the harmonica-playing truck driver. The trucking business is now a key part of the LaJoie Growers’ business model. Grand Prix Inc. trucking is one of the farm’s entities and allows them to transport their produce the minute it has been processed. Jay LaJoie, Normand’s grandson, said, “If you can’t get a truck, you can’t get a sale.”
LaJoie Growers History
- 1698 – The LaJoie Family migrated from Saintonge, France to Kamouraska, Quebec, Canada.
- 1822 – Moved to Edmunston, New Brunswick, Canada
- 1868 – Moved to Cyr Plantation, Maine
- 1901 – William purchased the homestead farm consisting of approximately 200 acres (1st: William and Clodia LaJoie).
- 1940’s – William eventually turned the land over to his son Gilbert in the 1940s; he took over and farmed until his early passing at age 45 (2nd: Gilbert and Martha LaJoie).
- 1966 – Gilbert’s son Normand, only 17 at the time, took over farming his family’s land; in 1966 his was one of the first farms around to implement a conventional potato harvest instead of picking with barrels (3rd: Normand and Maxine LaJoie).
- 1970’s – In the 1970s Normand started a trucking company, which enabled him to support his farm and family over a period of hard farming years.
- 1980’s – In 1980 Normand continued growing potatoes, peas and grain with his son Gil (4th: Gilbert and Kim LaJoie, father and step mother) and Dominic and Rachel LaJoie (uncle and aunt).
- 1996 – In 1996 Normand’s son Dominic joined the farming operation, which continued as a fresh and processing potato farm.
- 2000’s – In the early 2000s Dominic diversified the farm into growing blue potatoes and landed a deal with Terra Chips, which produces blue potato chips.
- 2006 – In 2006 the farm began growing red beets mainly for chip production.
- 2007 – In 2007 Jay (5th generation) returned from college and joined the farming operation; collectively they formed LaJoie Growers LLC. (5th: Jay [Gil’s Son] and Ashley LaJoie) and Lucas and Lisa LaJoie (cousin of family; not immediate relation) Sky LaJoie (Soon to join the operation; Gils son, Jay’s brother in his senior year at University of Maine)
- 2012 – In 2012 Cousin Lucas LaJoie joined the operation. The farm continued to diversify its farm products and now grows three varieties of beets (red, gold and candy stripe) as well as carrots and parsnips for fresh and processing markets.
Third, fourth generations take reins
Normand’s son Gilbert, named after Normand’s father, joined his father on the farm in 1980. In addition to the grains, (oats, barley and rye) and potatoes, already grown on the farm, peas were added during the ’80s. Dominic, another of Normand’s sons, joined the operation and the three worked together selling fresh and processed potatoes. In the early 2000s Dominic, a fourth-generation LaJoie, saw a financial opportunity by growing heirloom potatoes for niche markets.
Processing beets for delivery
The LaJoies invested in “All Blue” and “Adirondack Blue” potatoes on a large scale. Adirondack Blues, with their blue or purple skin as well as blue flesh, were then available only at farmers markets and specialty grocery stores. They were considered a rarity/novelty product. Gilbert and Dominic ended that novelty status when they landed a deal with Terra Chips, which makes blue potato chips. They now sell 3 million pounds of their blue potatoes to Terra Chips, chips that are now served as an in-flight treat for travelers flying on JetBlue Airlines.
Success that came from growing blue potatoes led the brothers to seek other opportunities to diversify crops, so they added three varieties of beets: red, gold and candy stripe. Today, they sell the beets for chips and to the wholesale restaurant market. Carrots and parsnips were also added to the list of crops and are still grown for the fresh markets and chips. This year, they plan to over-winter parsnips for the first time. This adds sweetness to the parsnip. While varieties that the LaJoies grow tend to produce a lower yield than their more conventional potatoes like Russets, they get a premium price, making it worthwhile.
Fifth generation joins farm
In 2005, Gilbert’s oldest son, Jay, who had just earned a college degree in agricultural business and business administration, took a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a program technician and farm loan trainee. He did this for two years but couldn’t resist the pull of his family’s farm and returned to Van Buren to join his uncle and father in 2007. That same year, the three LaJoies, Gilbert, Dominic and Jay, collectively formed LaJoie Growers LLC. Jay’s cousin Lucas LaJoie followed Jay into the family business in 2012.
Jay said, “What’s nice about our operation is that everyone has their own expertise.” Jay is the treasurer and farm manager, his father, Gilbert, is vice president, Dominic is the company’s president, and Lucas manages the processing sector. LaJoie Growers LLC now grows approximately 600 acres of specialty produce and 700 acres of small grains. They sell their produce to all markets including fresh, chip, processing and seed.
The notion that younger generations tend to be softer than their forefathers does not apply to the LaJoie family. Jay and his cousin Lucas do not sit in an air-conditioned office all day. They are involved in every step of the operation: plowing, harrowing, planting, harvesting and processing, all while staying current with conservation practices to build soil health, cultivating cover crops, planning crop rotation, storing, packing, shipping and marketing.
We visited the farm in August and saw fields of beets, potatoes, Adirondack Red potatoes and 9 acres of parsnips, which are sold to make Parsnip Terra Chips. We also saw Jay’s father Gil out driving a combine in a huge field of oats. Looking north over his fields it was easy to spot Canada, which lies a few miles away on the other side of St John’s River. Back in the shipping facility, we watched Jay cleaning sorting equipment and helping his employees sort and pack potatoes on an 18-wheeler for delivery at a New Jersey processing plant the next day.
Innovative cold storage
A major improvement made on the farm in the spring of 2016 is a state-of-the-art cold storage facility that Jay helped to design, build and partially finance with a grant from Maine’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. The grant was awarded to LaJoie Growers for their diversified farm products, which are now stored in a specially designed cold storage facility. Jay worked with a storage engineer to design the building, creating channels in the floor to deliver air to the produce versus the old method of stacking potatoes on plastic culverts to deliver ventilation. He also used Logix blocks in his construction of the facility, because they provide 40 percent more insulation than traditional materials.
The new facility has a capacity to store 5 million pounds of produce. With its 30 tons of refrigeration to regulate the building’s temperature and humidity the new facility allows the LaJoies to keep product longer. In 2012 the LaJoies received a Rural Energy American Program grant that helped them reduce the farm’s energy consumption and save on energy costs.
In tune with new technology, the LaJoies recently partnered with Raptor Maps, a firm that helps farmers troubleshoot crop problems by using drone technology. The Massachusetts-based company was founded in 2015. Data collected by drones helped the LaJoies count how many plants were growing and gather weekly data about potential stressors from insects, funguses and viruses. They use GPS-guided tractors when planting as it maximizes the land and their crops. They were quick to implement best practices like top-killing their potatoes a few weeks before harvest. Top-killing induces tuber maturity and skin set so that during harvest the potatoes are less likely to suffer from bruises or cuts.
Walt Whitcomb, Commissioner of the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry has high regard for the LaJoie family and their entire operation. He said, “The LaJoie Family, the multiple generations of the LaJoie family, are recognized as leaders in the agricultural world locally, statewide and nationally. They are innovators, marketers who tell their personal farm story well, excellent stewards of their land and just a wonderfully-friendly family.”
Promoting potatoes in state and nationally
While busy with their own crops, Jay and his other family members are active throughout the state and the country promoting and developing the potato industry.
“At this stage in my life, I am focused on improving my family business and putting our industry on the map,” he said. “I enjoy researching new farming practices, rotation crops and potential markets for the crops in our region.” He has also joined the effort of Potatoes USA to expand its new initiative Spud Nation Food Trucks. The trucks come equipped with a $160,000 kitchen and serve dishes that promote what is nutritious about potatoes like classic fries, Italian gnocchi and Cuban-braised beef with corn-potato croquettes.
Jay believes that the potato industry needs to, “improve the perception of nutrition and health benefits of potatoes.” The Spud Nation Food Truck initiative is part of the potato industry’s efforts to expand and keep the market for potatoes current. One way to do that is make sure that “Generation Z,” with its 60 million school-age kids, loves to eat potatoes!
Soon to join the Operation is Jay’s brother Sky LaJoie. He is in his senior year at the University of Maine, studying agriculture economics. As for the sixth generation of LaJoies, Jay and Lucas would be happy if their children decide to join the family business. Jay said, “We were blessed by what was handed down to us from our parents, and our job is to take what they taught us and run with it.”
Photos: Dale Cahill, Paul Cyr and Kayann/istock