potato harvest

Today’s blog has nothing to do with writing, but everything to do with where I live. Aroostook County, Maine … potato country.

This is the time of year when everyone’s focus is on the weather and the fields. Months ago, the potatoes were growing in the sun. The scenery was beautiful.

But a few weeks ago the farmers began killing off the top plant of the potato (since it’s a tuber grown in the dirt) which allowed the skin of the potatoes to harden. (In days before chemicals they let nature and a hard frost do this job for them.)

On Friday all high schools in Aroostook County will close for three weeks allowing the students the opportunity to help harvest the potato crop. Really.

I didn’t grow up here and I hear stories of the years before automation that nearly every business closed and families went into the fields to harvest potatoes by hand. (Check out the picture below) Diggers tilled the potatoes to the surface. Then workers would pick them by hand, filling up the basket with a handle and transferring the load to the larger barrel. A card with a number was shoved into the slats to identify the picker who filled the barrel. Each barrel earned a person $.50. Yes, that decimal point is in the right place. Barrels were collected on flatbed trucks and hauled to the potato house for storage.

It was long hours of back-breaking labor. Now there are havesters.

The potatoes are dug out of the ground and transported on conveyors to the body of the harvester where young people stand and cull out rocks, dirt, and plant material. Then the conveyor deposits the potatoes directly into the bed of potato trucks that haul them to the potato house.

With the automation of the harvest, children can no longer help with the harvest. Workers need to be at least 16 to be on a harvester. And this is where my children come in. We have a dear friend who is a potato farmer. (I worked for him one season yeeeeaars ago when my children were young. It was a wonderful experience. Of course I didn’t grow up with it so I found it fascinating. Hard work, but educational. Sorry, I digress…) Anyhoodles … they work on the harvester from 6 am to 7 pm. A veeeery loooong day indeed. 

But it’s only for three weeks. I figure you can do anything for three weeks. And they get paid very well for their labor. So all my children have worked throughout their high school years. I am proud that Little Boy Blue will once again be one of a handful of students from his high school actually working the harvest. The tradition of students working for farmers is waning. With so few teenagers working, I suspect within the next decade there will no longer be a harvest break at the schools.

This will be our last time dealing with the harvest in our house. Early hours, praying for rain (to take a day off), praying for sun (so you don’t freeze your butt off on the harvester all day), cleaning Wally World out of Little Debbie snacks and work gloves, doing laundry every night so the potato dirt covering four layers of clothing doesn’t spread further than the back door to the shower, reheating dinners for exhausted children, and all the other stuff that goes with the season.

I’m pleased my kids have had this experience to take with them into their work years. I suspect there will be few jobs they will work that will be as labor intensive as harvesting potatoes. I hope the lessons they learn from their years in the field will be carried with them for a long time to come.

So now, I have to ask you. What have you done, either that  you loved or hated … that when it was over was a life lesson you’ve kept with you? 

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