Monday, December 5, 2016

Potato Fight: New York vs. Maine, An Early “Buy Local” Movement

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

When I ask you to think of a state known for potatoes, you probably think of Idaho, right? Well, in the 19th and early-to-mid-20th century, you probably would have said New York or Maine. New York was the United States’ early potato producing leader, but by the 20th century, Maine farmers were starting to outpace New Yorkers. Chemung County, and the Southern Tier and central New York in general, was a significant potato producing region. When Maine potatoes began flooding both national and local markets, farmers from this region felt the pinch (importantly, some of this competition also happened during the Great Depression, increasing financial strains). One local grocery store chain, however, made it a key piece of their advertising to take on the Maine farmers and promote buying local potatoes.

By 1906, the local news was reporting on increased competition on the potato market from Maine growers, particularly from Aroostook County in the far northern part of the state. New rail lines made it possible to ship the potatoes down to the New York City markets, which until then were dominated by New York farmers. Maine potatoes weren’t the only competition; in 1912, potatoes were imported from Scotland and sold in this region, despite a bumper crop locally. Still, Maine emerged as the largest competition. This was troubling, because as one local report called them, potatoes were “a mortgage lifter for southern tier farmers.”  

On October 24, 1927, the A&P grocery store ran an advertisement in the Star-Gazette continuing their annual potato sale. The ad emphasized that they were selling “fancy Maine potatoes,” not to be confused with “local Potatoes which are being offered at a lower price. Remember A&P always sticks to quality.” The ad also noted that their sale had been such a giant success that they had to turn hundreds of potato customers away the week before, but that there would be plenty more “speeding” there from Maine.

This didn’t go over well with the local Serv-U Save-U grocery stores, owned by individual local businessmen. A couple days later, on Thursday, October 27, the full-page Serv-U Save-U advertisement in the Star-Gazette was headed by the following:
“Mr. Farmer:-
          Do you raise State of Maine Potatoes? That’s what is being handled by the Chain Stores. Is this doing you or the community any good?
          Think it over!”
An Elmira Serv-U Save-U store, with presumably local potatoes out front
Now, the A&P did sometimes sell local potatoes, and the Serv-U Save-U stores occasionally advertised southern or Jersey potatoes, but by the late 1920s, the local potato battle lines were drawn for Serv-U Save-U. Over the next few years, their ads featured more and more prominent pleas for people to shop locally. “Help the local farmer” became an advertising rallying cry. (Interestingly, though they carried other local produce, as well as imported, potatoes were the only ones that were the focus of their campaign, probably due to high local, state, and national tensions and pride about that particular crop.)

October 25, 1928

October 12, 1933

October 15, 1936

By the late 1930s and 1940s, Serv-U Save-U seemingly gave up their vocal fight. In 1939, they even advertised Maine potatoes. 
Serv-U Save-U ad for Maine potatoes, March 9, 1939.
Ironically, this might have been because Maine potatoes were suddenly being grown much closer to home. By the late 1930s, Maine potato farmers began buying up land in Steuben County to create large potato farms. They cited taxes as the primary reason (tax rates weren’t necessarily lower, but the land value here was, leading to tax savings for those who relocated). Proximity to large cities in which to sell the potatoes was another key factor. From 1938 to 1940, 32 farms, or 3,000 acres, were purchased by Maine potato farmers.

The potato feud wasn’t totally over, but by the 1940s, Maine emerged the winner, and the state was the top potato producer in the country. Local farms didn’t disappear, however, and there was still a lot of pride in the local yield. In 1943, in the midst of World War II, the War Food Administration proposed creating a storehouse for surplus Maine potatoes somewhere in central New York. The Star-Gazette mocked this plan, stating, “the idea of storing Maine potatoes in a potato section of New York seems illogical, if not impolite. It is bad enough to sell them here…New York State potato growers will have to see what they can do hereafter to overcome these Maine pressures on the home crop.” 

Maine’s potato dominance waned over the rest of the 20th century, opening the vacuum that Idaho would eventually come to occupy. Still, this early example of fighting back against imported crops is a nice example of an organized movement to buy locally, something we associate more with today than the mid-20th century.

No comments:

Post a Comment