Published on Monday, October 31, 2016
For Sue McCrum, potato farming is a family affair. Siblings, cousins, parents and children each use their individual talents to fulfill specific roles on their family’s farm in northern Maine.
She has plenty of experience picking potatoes, but these days Sue serves the farm best by sharing her family’s story as an active member of the community and former American Agri-Women President. She passionately advocates for family farms like hers close to home and in Washington D.C.
Although Sue is proud to be a part of the potato industry, it’s not the life she pictured for herself when she married her husband, Jay. “First of all, when I started dating Jay, probably the second or third date, he informed me that he loved the smell of dirt. I probably should have run.” Sue laughs. “I didn’t understand it. But he was going to school to be an accountant and I really didn’t see farming in our background, I really didn’t. I was going to be in health care, he was going to be in accounting and life looked easy to me.”
To her surprise, life’s path quickly took an unexpected turn. “Six months after we were married, Jay’s dad, who had always farmed, was potato farming and things just didn’t pan out. He’d had a dairy farm, and had been burnt out of out of the dairy business about two years prior to that in the middle of February. Then, we put a new vocational section at our high school and my father-in-law, who had his teaching degree had been asked to run the program. He decided that was a great opportunity so he wanted to give on of his family members the first opportunity to buy out the farm. They came to see if Jay and I were interested. This was on a Friday night and we asked how long we had to think about it. He said we had to know by Monday. So, we talked it over. We just kind of kept our side jobs, and decided we would try it for five years. Jay loved it. He absolutely loved farming and I actually learned to love farming. It gets into your skin. It becomes yours. You become independent.” Sue smiles.
“Back then it was just he and I. We started in 1972 with 65 acres. Now, I think this is the 45th crop.” Because of their crop rotation with neighboring broccoli farmers, it depends on the year, but the McCrums now grow potatoes on thousands of acres.
Teamwork has brought the family a long way. “I learned to take my vacation times when we needed it in the spring or the fall.” Sue recalls. “Then we started having children. By the time we had the third child, I was not working off the farm anymore. We were just working together on the farm. And then Jay’s brother came in, and one of the boys we hired when we needed extra help ended up marrying his sister and became a full time partner. As my sons came up, I knew one would probably farm. He was always going to be a farmer. I couldn’t see my second son as a farmer, but he found his niche. He found the transportation niche and he’s very, very good at what he does. That’s exactly what we needed. It was another piece to the puzzle. My boys were the oldest of the next generation and we had three nephews that showed an interest. Each one of them have seemed to find a niche and do an extremely good job of it. They’ve learned to put it together and do it quite well.”
Teamwork is essential, not just on the farm, but throughout the county. The McCrums work with other farmers to rotate crops. One year, Sue’s family will plant potatoes in a field, the next year, the other family plants broccoli in its place. Crop rotation helps break the lifecycle of pests and diseases that only harm one of those crops.
In northern Maine, agriculture brings the community together. Local schools recess so students can help out with potato harvest. “We used to pick them by hand and then they’d go into 165 and 180 pound barrels, depending on what it was.” Sue remembers. “I got paid a quarter a barrel. Even school teachers at that time would take the time off because it was a tradition, a way to earn a little bit of extra money. These rural communities don’t have many job opportunities for kids in high school to work. This is one of the times they are able to actually get out and help towards some needs that they have, whether it was putting away for college or clothing, or just daily needs alone.”
Pam Townsend was one the first employees Jay and Sue hired as the farm grew. She’s been keeping the books for years and has played an important role in helping the family transition to the next generation of leaders. Now, she’s proud to work with ‘the kids’ every day. “It’s great to see. I love it. I love getting up and coming to work.” she says.
"We’re very fortunate to be a multi-generational family farm that is able to farm together. We have two sons and three nephews that are part of the fifth generation carrying it on. We’re a big family. You just have to realize you have the same goals, you want to be a success, you want to have the best product you can, you want to keep everybody safe while they’re doing it, and you cannot do it alone. You have to work together. Pam has seen us go through the highs and lows. She’s been around nearly 20 years. It’s not always perfect, but in the long run, it’s faith, family and farming. It’s something we can all do together."
That’s why Sue McCrum, and her family, farms.
Author: Natalina Sents
Categories: Why I Farm, Why I Farm Roadtrip
Tags: Why I Farm, Why I Farm Roadtrip, Maine farmer, Pam Townsend, Sue McCrum, potatoes