Across the road from our house is a potato field. Where I live, most people live pretty close to one, so this is not a scene that is unfamiliar to those living in Aroostook County, Maine. For the past few days we’ve listened to the whirring sound of the airhead on the potato harvester, watching the windrower ahead of it, going up and down the rows of the long field, as well as the truck going along side the harvester. It’s a rhythm repeated throughout the fields in our town and others around the county this time of year. It’s what we’re used to, we’ve even come to expect it. But that wasn’t always the way it was…
When I was growing up, most farmers hired school children (and some adults) to “pick” potatoes. We usually started back to school earlier than children in other parts of the country because after being in school for only 3-4 weeks, the potatoes would be ready and the farmers needed us to help bring in the crop. Usually by the time you went back to school, you were pretty sure which farmer you would “pick for” that year and have your job lined up. You knew how much you’d be paid per barrel, as well as which of your friends would be picking with you.
Every year I would get so excited. I had my money spent before I earned it. Normally it started with school clothes, which is what most of us bought with the money we earned, but always included fun things like new records (yes, I’m over 40!) and other things we just had to have. The only thing you forgot year to year was how hard the work really was.
You got up early, before the sun. You dressed warmly in layers, because the mornings were frosty, but the days warmed up so you needed to peel off those layers as the day wore on. You waited outside in the dark of the early morning for the farmer’s pickup truck to pull up, usually driven by his wife or family member. You’d crawl into the back end of it, greeting whoever happened to be there already and sit on that cold metal seat. When you got to the field, you’d be handed your basket and “tickets”. Your tickets had a number on them so that you could tuck them safely into a part of the potato barrel. That way, they’d know who picked the barrel and you could be paid for it. By this time, the sun was up and the hard work of a long day began. The only thing left to do before the work began was to mark off your “section” – the length of the field that was yours to pick. You had to gauge how long your section was, because you had to figure out how fast you could pick before the digger came back down the row again, because you didn’t want to get behind – it would be embarrassing to have to have help to pick your section!
When you got to be a teenager, you knew you didn’t have to pick potatoes any more… you were now old enough to work on a “harvester”. You’d stand on the platform of the harvester, the potatoes moving along in front of you, picking out rocks, potato tops and anything else that didn’t belong. You weren’t bent over putting potatoes into a basket until it was full, then walking to dump it into a barrel, but you were standing on a narrow platform, bent over hour after hour, your arms flying this way and that. No matter how you do it, potato harvesting is hard work! Working on a harvester brought you more money than picking did, usually because while picking potatoes, you were usually also visiting with friends, stopping for the wonderful big lunches your Mom packed for you, as well as meeting and visiting with the new people you met each year.
There is so much more to the potato harvest that I haven’t included in this post. The smells of plowed earth and potatoes, waiting with full barrels for the trucks to return from dumping said barrels at the potato house, grabbing a soda or snack while waiting. I guess the thing I miss the most is the fun of it all. Yes it was hard work, but it was fun work!
Now, the children don’t get out of school for potato harvest. Machinery and adults do all the work. Schools all over the county have debated the “harvest break” for as long as I can remember and finally it has been decided that the children aren’t needed for the harvest to continue. Is it the way it should be? I’m not sure. I know working parents had to find someone to provide child care while school was out if their child wasn’t working, so it’s easier on them. I know that the era of picking potatoes by hand is almost dead, but should it be? Are today’s kids missing out on something? I think they are. We learned a lot when we worked those three weeks during the year. We learned responsibility and the value of a hard-earned dollar. We learned how far that money would go and that if we worked hard, it paid off. I’m sorry to see this part of our history in this part of the country die away.
This trip down memory lane was fun for me and I hope that in some way I’ve given you a glimpse into life in potato country – a life I wouldn’t trade for anything!