LITTLETON, Maine — A time-honored tradition returned to Aroostook County this week as a crew of hand-pickers was needed at the farm of David Bartlett to assist with a new variety of potatoes.
According to Robert Bartlett, David’s father, two new varieties — Russian banana fingerlings and red French fingerlings — were grown this year at the request of one of their clients in Florida.
“We are raising these varieties to be used as seed potatoes,” Robert said. “We’ll be sending them to Florida, where they will be used in gourmet restaurants. Because they are so little, we can’t use the harvester, so we have to pick them by hand.”
An acre and a half was used for the fingerlings. The Bartletts called upon family members, neighbors and friends to assist with the handpicking operation. The fingerlings were planted from seed potatoes purchased in New York in April.
Digging potatoes to pick by hand is something the elder Bartlett had not done in some time.
“We switched to harvesters in 1966, so it’s been quite a while since we’ve done this,” Robert said.
In fact, the Bartletts had to borrow a tractor and digger from their neighbor, Dale Henderson, in order to extract the potatoes from the ground.
“This tractor was in Dale’s barn for a good 40 years or so not being used, but it was in great shape,” Robert said. “We had to put some new beds in it so the potatoes wouldn’t fall down through, but so far everything is working great.”
As an added bonus, the fingerlings also gave Robert the opportunity to introduce handpicking to his grandchildren, who had never experienced the Aroostook County tradition.
Sam Sargent, one of his grandchildren, said he had only heard stories about picking potatoes.
He wasn’t exactly thrilled by the notion of spending a day off from school Monday sitting in a potato field at 7:30 a.m., but it wasn’t as bad as he thought it would be.
“Mom said we were doing it, so we’re here doing it,” he said. “It’s not that hard actually.”
“We’re lucky the weather is a good day today,” Robert said Saturday morning. “I don’t know how many days they would want to be here regularly, but for a day or two, it’s kind of fun.”
The seed potatoes were sold to a farmer in southern Florida who will then grow the fingerlings as gourmet potatoes for restaurants in the Florida area.
“It’s expensive to buy the seed, but hopefully we’ll get a good return on it,” Robert said. “We like a challenge, so we gave this a try.”
HOULTON PIONEER TIMES PHOTO BY JOSEPH CYR
Halle Duff (left) and her mother Marcia Duff of Monticello are hard at work Monday morning filling buckets with the “fingerling” seed potatoes on David Bartlett’s Littleton farm. The seedlings can only be harvested by hand.