CARIBOU, Maine — Scott Hunter recalls his experience as a high school soccer player in an area where the potato is king with a smile on his face, even as he considers the effect the annual harvest break in Aroostook County had on his pursuit of soccer success some three decades ago.
“I picked a lot of potatoes,” said Hunter, a 1983 Caribou High School graduate and now a lawyer back in his hometown as well as the second-year coach of his alma mater’s boys varsity soccer team.
“Back when I played we took 3½ weeks off and there were no games and it was tough to gear it up again.”
The harvest and its relationship with high school sports have changed since then.
As the potato industry has become more mechanized, fewer kids are working in the fields each fall than a generation ago. According to recent reports, 34 percent of the students in SAD 33 (Frenchville) work on area farms during the harvest, while about 20 percent of the student body at Presque Isle High School, 18-20 percent of the high school students in the Fort Kent area and about a quarter of the students in Madawaska are similarly employed.
As a result, many County communities have had discussions about the need to maintain the annual harvest break at its current levels — generally two or three weeks, depending on the school district — with sports teams playing their first games two weeks earlier than their downstate counterparts.
Tradition and the needs of local farmers have held firm in most cases, but the Houlton area opted not to take a harvest school break for the first time this fall.
And while soccer practices once were virtually impossible for players who worked from dawn to dusk during harvest break, several schools now have lighted fields on which to hold evening practices — sometimes making a long day even longer.
“Being on your feet from 6 in the morning to 4:30 or 5 in the afternoon and then going right to practice at night, then getting up the next day and heading for MDI for a game, it’s pretty hard for them,” said Presque Isle High School athletic administrator Mark White, whose teams play and practice at the lighted Gehrig T. Johnston Athletic Complex. “There are some days when the girls will walk off the harvester and right into the locker room to change up for practice.”
Presque Isle and Caribou, the lone Class B schools left in the County, play games and practice right through harvest break, using the opportunity to schedule midweek road trips to play against southern opponents. This week, for instance, Caribou played boys and girls soccer matches at John Bapst of Bangor, while the Presque Isle teams played at Mount Desert Island of Bar Harbor.
“We play the majority of our road games during harvest break,” said White, who estimated that half of his school’s boys and girls varsity soccer teams work on the harvest. “It helps a lot.”
Many of the area’s smaller schools, which play most if not all of their matches against County rivals, will go three weeks to a month without playing a match during the harvest break.
Take Easton, which last played on Sept. 10 and isn’t scheduled to play again until Oct. 9, or Wisdom of Saint Agatha, which doesn’t have a match between Sept. 13 and Oct. 9.
And while those two schools and the other County teams are provided a head start on their preseason practices and regular-season schedules compared to their downstate counterparts by the Maine Principals’ Association each year, the lengthy midseason hiatus can more than offset any midsummer advantage.
“We start practice the 23rd of July, but we get out of school the 18th or 20th of June before that so there’s not that much time in between and a few of the kids are still doing vacation things so we have to work around that in the beginning,” said Easton High School boys soccer coach Ryan Shaw, who has more than half of his team working in area fields and potato houses during the current break. “Then you have to work around the harvest at the end.”
The Wisdom boys team was off to a 9-2 start and ranked first in Eastern Maine Class D this fall before going on harvest break, and whether the Pioneers can regain their early season momentum before the playoffs arrive will be pivotal to their postseason fortunes.
“It’s pretty tough,” said Wisdom junior midfielder Daniel Coulombe, who currently spends six days a week running a bin piler at the Berce Farm in Saint Agatha. “Most teams don’t start playing their seasons until we’re already done with about half of our games, and then we stop while they’re still playing.
“I like working the harvest and it’s a nice paycheck, but it is hard with soccer because you don’t get to play for two or three weeks and you hardly ever practice unless it’s a rainy day. The team bonding goes away because you just don’t see each other that much because you work 12-hour days so you don’t have time to hang out together.”
Coulombe, one of “six or seven” players on his team working the harvest, was hoping his team could practice after work at least one evening this week despite the fact his school’s field is not lighted.
“We’ve thought about lining our vehicles around the field and turning on the headlights so we could light at least half of the field,” he said. “At least we could get some shots on goal.”
Fourth-year Easton boys soccer coach Ryan Shaw tries to schedule daily workouts for his team, but he does so with an air of uncertainty.
“You never know who you’re going to have for practice,” he said. “You may have three kids, you may have 11, so you always want to have two practice plans.”
Shaw schedules practices from 5 p.m. until dark — which comes earlier with each passing day.
“To be honest, unless it’s a rainy day you usually don’t see many of the kids because they’re working the harvest from 7 to 7,” he said. “Some of the kids just can’t get there, and usually it’s the older kids. Some of them you might not see for weeks.
“But we’re a small farming community, and it’s important to have the kids there to help with the harvest.”
Shaw tries to make the best of any coaching opportunities he gets even when few players show up for practice by focusing those workouts on individual instruction.
“At the start of the season we might play 11 games in four weeks, so there really isn’t a lot of time for practices and sometimes the fundamentals get left behind,” said Shaw, whose Bears are 6-5 this season.
“Soccer is a flowing sport, you’ve got to get everyone on the same page and you need to practice five or six times a week to keep that flow, so you can get a little discouraged if you only have a couple of kids show up for practice. But the good thing is at least you can work with those kids on their fundamentals and help them get better.”
Redeveloping team chemistry on the field is one challenge facing teams when they resume their regular practice routines after several weeks of long work days.
“That’s the hard thing,” said Hunter Turner, a junior stopper for the Easton boys soccer team who currently is working at Flewelling Farms in Easton. “We were playing our best and then we had to stop. It’s frustrating as a competitor, but we’re going to go out there and do our best to play good soccer.”
Another challenge for the players is more physical.
“Probably the big thing is coming back out of shape,” said Coulombe. “We fill our bellies at harvest time and don’t run that much. But harvest is a good break from school and sport, and it also gives you time to think of ideas for drills and ways to get better.”
Most teams have a few games to rebound from what White and others call “harvest shape,” though that hasn’t always been the case. Just a few years ago, Easton played its entire regular-season schedule before the break.
“Now we play three games afterward,” said Shaw. “It helps you get back into it, although last year we weren’t anywhere close to where we were before harvest break during our last three games.”
And while there may be some mixed feelings among players whose soccer season is interrupted by this Aroostook rite of passage, the overriding sense among many youngsters involved in both enterprises is that the benefits gained from participating in the potato harvest each autumn far outweighs any sacrifices that are made.
“I look forward to it every year,” said Matthew Frost, a junior on the Caribou boys soccer team and fourth-year harvest worker at the Kyle Blackstone Farms. “I like it because you can make quite a bit of money and you feel like you’ve accomplished something at the end of the day because you’ve worked 14 hours and you have something to show for it.”