Excerpt from “The Lessons of the Harvest,” Yankee Magazine, September 1990.
In Maine’s Aroostook County, schools close for “potato recess” — also known as harvest break — as students help out with the potato harvest.
“Oh boy, no school for three weeks — maybe four if we get rain!” The Smith boys get up by 5:00 A.M. and eat a breakfast of fruit, hot cereal, hot biscuits, and bacon and eggs. They dress in layers of long underwear, shirts, sweaters, and padded pants so they can shed garments as the day gets warmer. Dinner kettles filled with everything a sleepy mother can find, they ride to the field at just daybreak, with the land fog so thick that the bright colors of the nearby woods are muted. The air smells of potato rust, burned tops, and damp earth.
The young pickers find their baskets, set their barrels at regular intervals, and groan as the digger man uncovers the potatoes muddy from last night’s rain. Their brown cotton work gloves will be wet and cold in a few minutes, their sneakers will be soggy, and their baskets will be heavy with mud. They pick standing up as long as backs and legs will hold out; then they get down on knees, still tender from yesterday’s rock bruises. Just when they are eight rows behind and despair of ever making it through the day, the sun comes out and the digger breaks down. While the farmer drives to town for parts, pickers race their friends to see who will get a section picked up first. The farmer’s wife drives up with hot sugared donuts and pots of cocoa.
In late afternoon they are tired of tasting gritty potato dust and wiping it from their eyes and so lame and sore that they want to leave, but can’t because their friends would call them quitters. At last the digger man stops and they go home to supper. They eat so much steak that mothers wonder if the contents of the big freezer will last the winter. They play basketball in the barn for an hour after their chores are done, but they are in bed by 8:30.
The next morning dawns so frosty that digging can’t start until the sun has warmed the ground. The pickers gather dry tops and broken barrels and build a fire for keeping warm — and for roasting potatoes. They are always hungry in the field.
The Smith boys are a part of a big fraternity of Aroostook students who still exchange stories of potato picking, who understand and respect their potato farm heritage. Despite the bruised knees and chilly mornings, harvest recess has always taught kids a sense of identity and pride in “The County.” Should this tradition ever end, I can think of nothing to replace it.