Harvesting Potatoes

Dateline: 18 October 2006

Picking potatoes in Aroostook County, Maine—back in the day.

I have a special affinity for potatoes, not because I like to eat them (though I do), but because spuds are a big part of my family history.

My mother’s father (the man pictured with me on the cover of this book) was a potato farmer in Aroostook county, Maine. “The County” as it is sometimes called is an enormous expanse of land covering a good portion of northern Maine. My father, who is from the same town as my mother, did not grow up on a potato farm, but both his parents did. So I am one generation removed from potato farming on one side of my family and two generations on the other side.

Back then, agriculture was the major “industry” in Aroostook county. The economy of the area rose and fell with the success or failure of the potato crop. Potatoes were so important that every fall, as far back as people can remember, the schools were recessed for three weeks because the kids were needed to help harvest the potato crop.

A potato digging machine would go down the hilled rows, leaving the potatoes on top of the ground. Cedar-stave potato barrels were positioned throughout the field. People picked the potatoes up and put them in big baskets made of woven ash. When the basket was full the picker carried it to his or her barrel and dumped it in. Pickers were paid by the barrel. Acres of fields were harvested by crews of pickers in this manner.

Boys and girls, men and women, young and old, they all worked together to get the crop in. My grandfather’s 1967 diary reveals that, at 71 years old and retired from farming, he spent time during the harvest season picking potatoes for his neighbor, Roy Webb—and my grandmother picked too! It was an opportunity to make some decent money. But there was something else...

When so many people labor together, for long hours, over many days, in the hot sun, or the cold and rain, to achieve a common goal, and they do this year after year, generation after generation, the shared experience draws them closer. Strong, caring, community develops. It is a good thing. It is the right thing. I believe it is an important element of the way God intended for His people to live their lives—in close agrarian community.

Sadly, with the corporate-industrial takeover of farming, and ever-sprawling urbanism, strong agrarian community bonds are nowhere near what they once were. The exception would be within close-knit agrarian religious sects, like the Amish, who wisely and deliberately separate themselves from any technology that they see as a threat to the unity and strength of their community.

My mother once told me that the best potato picker in her family was my aunt Irene who, incidentally, is the only child of ten in the family who stayed in northern Maine. She still lives just outside the town of Bridgewater.

When I went to my grandmother Kimball’s funeral a couple years ago, my family stayed with my Aunt Irene. I told her what my mother said and asked what her secret was. She said, “I picked with both hands.” I think that is only part of it. I think that to be the best picker takes a very focused, determined attitude, along with both hands working.

Unfortunately, I never picked potatoes in Maine, even though they were still hand-picking when I was a boy. I recall it being suggested that I could (and should) go up and help with the harvest. But Aroostook county is a long way from central New York State (it’s a long way from most everywhere), and I would have had to miss a few weeks of schooling. So the idea was never seriously pursued.

I have, however, harvested my own potatoes, and that’s what I did here a few weeks ago. I planted three 70-foot rows last spring. I hilled them up with a hoe and kept the weeds under control. Incredibly, I did not have any blight or bug problems. It was a great year for growing potatoes.

My potato digger was a stout, four-tine digging fork. I started early in the morning (I’m a morning person). The rest of my family was still in bed. Annie (my mongrel dog) was, as always, close by to keep me company.

Hand-digging potatoes with a fork is downright hard work, and my lower back has, in recent years, become my weakest link. After digging up two rows, I was hurting. So I laid myself down on the grass by the garden. The heavy, cool dew soaked through my clothing and I didn’t care—it felt good.

I was there less than a minute before my son James suddenly appeared, looming over me with another fork in hand, anxious to get digging. Robert was right behind. I love it when boys are eager to work! I only wish I had the same freshness they had. Nevertheless, I struggled to my feet and we worked together on the last row.

Hand-digging potatoes with three people is a whole lot easier and more fun than working by yourself. Two of us, one on each side of the row, foot-pushed our forks into the soft ground and levered them up in unison. As the once-hidden spuds came into view, the third person, on hands and knees, grabbed them and laid them on the just-dug soil behind him.

Here is a picture showing part of our three rows of potatoes on top of the ground, where I left them for a few hours to dry off. Annie is raising her head to the morning sun, soaking up the warm rays.

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You can not build community in a broad sense by digging potatoes with your kids. But you can build a stronger family by working together, sharing in the experiences of planting and preserving and preparing the food, your own homegrown food, year after year, as part of your own unique family culture. Such a way of living brings a richness to family life that no modern amusement can match.

So many modern parents shuttle their children from one outside-the-home activity to another because they want to give their children a variety of opportunities and enrich their lives, preparing them for the future. This is well intentioned and, I suppose, a good thing, but only to a degree. Most, it appears to me, exceed that degree.

Such busyness can never substitute for the benefits that come when the entire family works together at home to provide for the family’s needs—growing food, cutting firewood, building fence, caring for livestock, repairing the barn, hunting, and so forth. Do you want to build a strong family? Park the car. Stay home more. Work together at home more. Play together at home more. Establish traditions in your home. Make memories at home. I’ll get off my soapbox now.

Later in the day, the potatoes were picked into crates. The following picture shows our entire potato crop packed into my extremely handy garden cart (plans for which should be in print next spring). The tubers are now stored away in our cellar where they will keep very well through the winter, and into next summer. I think my grandfather would be pleased.

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P.S. The greenery you see growing in the background of the pictures above is buckwheat in blossom. It is growing as a "green manure" where I harvested this year’s garlic. That buckwheat has now been tilled under and I will broadcast some winter rye seed on it, probably this weekend

5 comments:

Emily said...

We love potatoes and go through them like crazy. God willing, we will be able to have our own crop next year. Our local farm from which we purchase most of our vegetables had a failed crop because of the spring deluges in this area so they brought in a bunch to sell from PEI in Canada. They were awful to look at, but delicious in flavor. I think they must have been old, or not stored well, because many were already softening and even sprouting. I have a feeling that Wyeth print may have been something he did for a magazine or some sort of advertisement as he was an illustrator in his day. Just a thought, and the reason it may be difficult to locate a copy. Keep checking on sites like Ebay, though, because you never know! :) Thanks for sharing your memories, Herrick. A delight to read, as always.

Herrick Kimball said...

Hi Emily,
It's nice to hear from you.

My cousin, Bo, oldest son of my Aunt Irene (the best potato picker in the family), who grew up in Aroostook county sent sent me this photo of Central Aroostook Farmland in Fall. It is truly beautiful countryside up there.

Herrick Kimball said...

Whoops... I thought that was a link and it was not.

This one should work: A Selection of Aroostook Photos

Teri said...

I haven't picked potatoes, but I have picked apples (which are THE crop in the Columbia River Gorge). Have met folks who raised a family on picker's wages. I think it's a shame that we don't have those jobs any more. I enjoyed working in the orchards and packing sheds a lot more than the tech support work I do now.

Herrick Kimball said...

Hi teri,

Thanks for stopping by. Central New York is a large apple-producing region. Recent news reports say local apple growers growers are concerned that they will not get their entire crops harvested because so many of the migrant pickers are illegal immigrants and they are afraid to travel north for the picking.

My solution..... let the schools out so kids can do the picking. Of course, that would never work because it would create such problems. Besides, how many kids would have the inclination to work hard at manual labor, and the determination to stick with it when the going gets tough? probably not enough to make it work.

I understand that a person can make some decent money at picking apples if they really work at it.