FORT KENT, Maine — It’s pretty easy to spot the breakfast newcomers at Doris’ Cafe this time of year. They’re the ones who actually have to place an order with the waitress.
The regulars, on the other hand, start walking in around 5 a.m., help themselves to a cup of coffee, sit down and wait for their food.
“She knows everyone’s order,” Kris Malmborg said. “She knows what they want and she just brings it to them.”
On this particular morning, a bowl of steaming oatmeal is brought to Malmborg, an Aroostook County deputy sheriff for most of the year, who digs in while his eldest son, Noah, tries to not fall asleep in his own three-egg omelette.
The two are among a group of area farmers getting a jump on the day midway through the annual potato harvest.
“I take my vacation every year to work the harvest,” Malmborg said. “This is actually relaxing for me.”
Relaxing is not often a word associated with farming in Aroostook County, or anywhere for that matter, but for the men and women who produce the food that feeds the country, it’s a way of life they would not trade.
Especially this year.
Sunny skies, warmer than expected conditions and high-quality potatoes coming out of the ground have a lot of farmers smiling from the fields to the potato sheds.
Among them is Malmborg’s grandfather Raoul Caron, 73, of Fort Kent, who has farmed his whole life.
“We had such a dry summer we were expecting low yields this year, but then we dug our first row and saw what was there,” Caron said.
“He’s been smiling ever since,” Malmborg said.
Maine potato farmers planted nearly 55,000 acres in 2010, the most recent year for which statistics are available, with a yield of 29,000 pounds per acre, according to the Maine Potato Board fact sheet.
Overall, 1.6 billion pounds of potatoes were produced in 2010 worth $159.2 million, according to the board.
Days on the Caron farm start early, usually with Malmborg at the family’s potato storage shed on Market Street in Fort Kent long before the sun comes up.
“It’s just a good feeling being here before the rest of the crew comes in,” Malmborg said, walking through the two-story potato house flipping on lights and plugging in the motors that run the conveyors used to move the potatoes from the delivery trucks to one of 28 massive storage bins, each capable of holding 1,100 barrels worth of spuds.
The Carons farm in and around an area of Fort Kent known as “Caron village” in honor Raoul’s father, Minal Caron, once one of the largest potato farmers in the region.
“He used to farm more than 1,000 acres,” Raoul Caron said. “He’d employ whole families for about a month picking potatoes.”
That was back in the days before mechanized harvesters pulled by tractors scooped up four, six or even eight rows of potatoes at a time, which run over a series of conveyors and into the large trucks that carry them to town.
On the harvester, a crew of five watches that fast-moving river of potatoes, picking out rocks, twigs, vines or any damaged potatoes that try to come along for the ride.
“I last did this 16 years ago,” Gina Pelletier said from her spot next to the harvester’s conveyor. “It was a bit different [because] it was an older harvester, so when this one started up I thought, ‘Oh my God, can I do this?’ But then it all came back to me.”
Pelletier was working for the Carons that day subbing for her daughter, who was recovering from a bug at home.
On the harvester with her is Raul Caron’s grandniece Danielle Caron, on break from Fort Kent Community High School for the annual harvest recess.
“It makes it a lot easier for the farmers when we have the time to come to work,” Danielle Caron said. “The work is all right [and] it’s some long days but I like it.”
While none of the harvest crew wishes any ill luck, instances of machinery breaking down or needing some routine maintenance are opportunities for brief breaks in days that can last more than 12 hours.
“Our forefathers left us something in the field,” Dale Caron, Raoul’s son, said, walking from his tractor to the harvester and carrying a bent, rusted metal rod that had gotten stuck in the machine that digs the potatoes.
“This got jammed up into the digger and could have really caused some problems,” Dale Caron said. “In a perfect world we’d never need to stop and fix things, but it’s not always a perfect world.”
Perfect or imperfect world, Dale Caron is a happy man out in the field.
“I love it,” he said of farming. “I’ve been doing it all my life and I’ve dug 33 crops [and] this life is part of my heritage and family.”
Three generations of the Caron family are working this year’s harvest and Raoul, the eyes and ears of the whole operation, is a man in constant motion between field and potato shed.
“You know, I’m almost embarrassed to tell you I’ve never picked a single potato in my life,” he said.
Instead, Raoul Caron went directly onto a machine.
“Back then you could drive a [potato] digger as a child,” he said. “All you had to do was keep it moving in a straight line and a man working behind you told you when to stop and when to go.”
Those days are long gone, but plenty of Caron children and grandchildren are working on the farm, from Malmborg down at the potato shed to Raoul’s grandson Randy, who worked with him fabricating a support to smooth the running efficiency of a modern potato digger.
“I remember we bought the first welder on the farm when I was 13,” Raoul Caron said. “We had to teach ourselves how to use it [and] I was never that good at it but Randy is a great welder.”
It’s easy to to get that sense of history on the Caron farm.
Taking a load of barrels filled with rocks, vines and other field detritus collected as the potatoes are loaded into the storage bins, Malmborg points out to a barrel with a large letter M stenciled on the side.
“That barrel is about 90 years old,” he said. “That ‘M’ means it was part of Minal Caron’s farm and he used it. How’s that for living history?”
About 30 miles west of the Caron farm, up in St. Francis, it’s possible to step back in time and get a sense of the County’s potato harvesting history on the Martin farm, where crews of workers still pick the potatoes by hand directly from the field.
Scores of barrels line the rows of potatoes, where every worker has their own clearly marked out territory or “section” to pick.
On knees or hunched over standing, workers fill their baskets, which are then dumped into the barrels which, in turn, are collected onto a truck for transport to the storage shed.
Workers are paid according to how many barrels they fill in a day. On the Martin farm, pickers are earning $1 per barrel.
“This is my aunt Margie and she’s such a good picker she’s huggable, that’s how good she is,” Jason Martin, who with his brothers Richard and Arnold runs the farm, said with a laugh. He threw his arm around Margie Taggart, who had come to help her grandson Chris pick. “My dad used to give her one field to pick all to herself.”
Taggart, who said she started picking potatoes when she was 5 years old, remembers routinely filling 100 barrels in a day.
“One day I picked 117 barrels,” she said. “Now a big day for the kids is 30.”
One hundred barrels or 20, the Martins are just happy to see young people out in the field working to earn their own money and maybe learn a few things along the way.
“The parents are showing their kids how to work,” Richard Martin said. “Some of those parents take their vacation time to bring the kids here, that’s how much it means to them.”
Two of those parents are Jimmy and Leslie Kelly of Fort Kent, who were working their own section of a Martin field with their 13-year-old son Matthew.
“This is the third year we’ve done this and it’s really fun,” Leslie Kelly said. “Matt wanted to pick and since I’d have to drive him up from Fort Kent anyway, I figured, ‘Why not stay and pick, too?’”
For the Kellys, it’s as much about having fun together as a family as it is about making any extra money.
“We can come out here and tease each other and get away with it,” she said. “The other day we were in a field where there were some little green potatoes that squirted when you squeezed them [and] we had a lot of fun squirting each other.”
Now in his third harvest, Matthew Kelly can pick upwards of 50 barrels a day — with some help from his mother.
“It’s kind of fun,” he said. “But it’s hard work sometimes, too.”
That’s fine with his parents.
“He’s learning responsibility and the importance of having to be on time for a job and working hard,” Leslie Kelly said. “It’s great for the kids to learn the value of earning their own money.”
Among those learning that lesson is Megan Jandreau, 12, of Wallagrass.
“My dad used to pick potatoes and always told me how much fun it was, so I decided to give it a try,” she said.
Turns out her dad was right.
“It really is fun and I definitely want to do it again next year,” Jandreau said.
Working alongside her was Stephanie Martin, the 14-year-old daughter of Lance Martin, who was taking his vacation time to help out his brothers on the farm.
“I really enjoy it,” Stephanie Martin said. “It’s hard to say how many barrels I do in a day because sometimes I drive the truck around the field.”
Supervising the field crew is Jason Martin, who stopped for a moment next to his niece.
“It’s really important to have different generations working together out here,” he said. “I like to come around and help the kids sometimes with their sections.”
“Yeah, except mine,” Stephanie Martin said with a grin. “He always seems to skip over my section.”
A farm truck passed slowly by, Arnold Martin standing on the flatbed with his nephew Matthew Daigle, 15.
As the truck arrived next to a filled barrel, Arnold dropped a large grapple on top and hoisted it into the truck with a winch. Daigle then rolled the barrels into line with the others.
“He’s really a good worker,” Arnold Martin said. “Sometimes I think he’s a lot older than he really is.”
It’s hard to not get caught up in the spirit of the farm families, especially this past week when sunny skies and peak fall colors only added to the sights, smells and sounds of the harvest.
And for now, the Martins, Carons and farm families around Aroostook County are enjoying a stretch of good weather and what’s appearing to be a great crop.
“Farming is what we do,” Raoul Caron said. “It’s what our family is.”