In Aroostook County, the traditional school potato harvest has played almost as large a role as the potato has in regional history. Generations of families have taken part in it; countless photographers have documented it; writers have included it in books and memoirs.
Children and teenagers once played a huge role in the harvest as pickers, but the invention of the potato harvester and other equipment has severely diminished that role. Several school districts in The County have chosen to stop inking the traditional one- to three-week harvest break into their school calendars altogether, and Monday night two additional districts will consider doing the same thing.
SAD 29 in Houlton and SAD 70 in Hodgdon will hold school board meetings tonight to decide how to address the harvest break next year. SAD 29 consists of the towns of Houlton, Littleton, Hammond and Monticello. SAD 70 includes the towns of Hodgdon, Amity, Ludlow, New Limerick, Haynesville, Linneus and Cary Plantation. Both districts have addressed the issue on and off for years, and dwindling participation has once again brought it to the forefront.
Both school districts observe one week of harvest recess. Older students who intend to work the harvest can stay out longer to do so, and the schools helps them complete the missed schoolwork. The schools communicate with growers to ensure that students are working.
The two southern Aroostook districts are the only school units that continue to let students out for harvest recess. SAD 25 in Stacyville and Community School District 9 in Dyer Brook no longer observe it.
Schools generally determine how many students take part in the break each year through surveys, but they are not always accurate because they are voluntary and some students simply don’t fill them out. In SAD 70 however, officials said last month that only five students took part in last fall’s harvest. Officials in SAD 29 didn’t have any official data, but estimated that 35 percent of its 1,300 students performed harvest related work.
During last month’s school board meeting, several local farmers attended the meeting and urged the board to continue the break. Some even suggested that it be longer.
Some parents and teacher, however, have said several times over the years that they no longer believe a harvest recess is warranted. Working parents have said they have a difficult time finding child care over the break if their children are not taking part in the harvest, and teachers have said that the break can be detrimental to learning. Younger students sometimes forget what they learned in the month before the break, forcing teachers to spend time going over the same material.
In 2006, SAD 29 conducted a harvest survey that was targeted toward parents and teachers. The results showed that 194 of the parents were in favor of continuing the break, and 467 were not in favor. As for district staff, 97 respondents wanted to continue the recess, while 59 did not.
Schools in Central Aroostook, such as SAD 1 in Presque Isle and SAD 42 in Mars Hill, have customarily seen good student participation in harvest break because much of the land in the district is farmland, and some of the larger potato growers, such as County Super Spuds in Mars Hill, are located in the area. The break is also continuing in the St. John Valley.
The school boards in both SAD 29 and SAD 70 will take up the issue tonight, and the public is invited. The SAD 29 meeting will begin at 6 p.m. in the superintendent’s conference room. The meeting in SAD 70 will begin at 7 p.m. at the superintendent’s office.