STOCKHOLM, Maine — Brenda Jepson likes to make films about ways of life that are disappearing.
So when a friend told her she should make a documentary about hand-picking potatoes, a way of harvesting spuds that, for the most part, has vanished, Jepson jumped at the opportunity.
The result is an hour-long documentary, “Tater Raisin’ Folk,” which is for sale in Aroostook County.
Back in the 1930s and 1940s, Jepson recalled during a recent telephone interview from her home, there were 6,000 farms in The County where hand-picking of potatoes was practiced.
“Today, there are about 10,” she said. “I pass by two farms where they hand-pick potatoes when I drive to work, so I never really thought about the practice becoming extinct until someone pointed it out to me.”
She added that the Maine Potato Board told her that “only 1 to 2 percent of farms in Aroostook still have hand-picking crews.”
“Once I heard that, I knew I had to make this film,” said Jepson.
Jepson, a 1974 University of Maine graduate, owns Crown of Maine Productions. She also teaches television part-time at the Caribou Technology Center.
Jepson began filming at planting time this spring and shot her first scenes at Gerritsens’ Wood Prairie Organic Farm in Bridgewater. She then depicted spraying time at Phil Nadeau’s farm in Frenchville.
She was assisted in the filming by her husband, Alan, who farmed potatoes with his father until 1985.
At harvest time, Jepson and her husband visited five farms to record hand-picking, including shooting scenes at Charlie Smith’s farm in Houlton, Dan Stewart’s family farm in Presque Isle and Clayton Patrick’s farm in Woodland.
There was something unique about each farm, Jepson noted. For instance, she said, to gather spuds at the Patrick farm, pickers use old barrels, some of which were made in the 1940s. At the Smith farm a large wooden bear adorns the family’s roadside vegetable stand, and the Stewart farm employs a wealth of teenagers who pick potatoes under the watchful eye of Dan Stewart and Rex, a German shepherd.
Other features of the film include the Fort Fairfield Potato Blossom Festival, which illustrates how farming families celebrate their crops with a parade, mashed potato wrestling and a potato recipe contest.
The film also highlights the “Potato Pickers Special,” an early morning television show that takes place during harvest and is now in its 48th year. The show not only helps recruit pickers, it also keeps work crews informed about start times and gives growers industry news.
Jepson said she was “humbled” in making the film.
“These families work so incredibly hard and they give so much of themselves to their communities,” she said.
Jepson’s films also include “The Story of the Acadians,” which narrates the history and culture of Maine’s Acadian people; “Swedish Folk Dancers,” which features scenes from Midsommar weekend held in Maine’s Swedish colony; and “Homecoming,” about an American grandfather and grandson who visit Sweden to visit relatives they had never met. She also has directed and produced films for PBS.
“Tater Raisin’ Folk” is available as a DVD combined with an Aroostook County 2009 calendar, or as a single DVD at stores countywide or on Jepson’s Web site at www.crownofmaineproductions.com. For information, contact Brenda Jepson at 896-3416.