Harvest in Aroostook County has a long-standing tradition of making honest young men out of gangly, pimply-faced boys and strong, hard-working young women out of teenage girls. Harvest in Aroostook County can be a turning point for many young people, a series of pivotal moments, usually occurring just as the sun rises above the foggy river to the East, when they learn exactly how much Mother Earth will demand of their time and bodies. They may greet the prospect of a potato harvest job with enthusiasm as joyful thoughts of spending their own money parade in their heads. Or perhaps they revel in the break from school, imagining how much better their time spent outside the class room will be, not solving algebraic equations or deciphering dangling participles, instead kickin’ around a few potatoes.
The rude and often bleary-eyed 5 a.m. awakening is that nobody really prepares them for the reality of working the potato harvest in Aroostook County. You can warn your eager teenager about how terribly their back is going to ache and throb after awkwardly leaning at a 60-degree angle for nine hours as a moving harvester belt rushes by, although they may not heed your experienced caution. You can scold them to bed by 8 p.m., encouraging them to “get some good sleep” as they roll their eyes at you and unwillingly plod to their bedroom, mumbling about not being tired. You want to remind them of how the darkest hours of morning always arrive too soon, but you don’t. You will tell them to dress warmly and to always keep a spare chapstick in their pocket and an extra box of Band-Aids in their cooler, but the invaluable minutiae of potato harvest experience will come to them much the same as it came to you; the hard way.
There is no time to flat iron your morning bed-head hair or apply perfect mascara and makeup at 5 in the morning. The discomfort of reluctantly crawling out from under the warm blankets and fumbling in the dark for flannel layers and long warm socks is frigidly humbling as you barely find time to wipe the crusty sleep from your eyes and pass a toothbrush through your mouth; hopefully with toothpaste. A warm woolen hat pulled down to your ears proves difficult for a good hairdo, even if your hair normally falls in just the right places when you toss your head. Your usual routine of careful wardrobe selection and meticulous grooming is suddenly exchanged for grabbing ratty, mismatched tops and bottoms and reaching for whichever pair of gloves smells the least like a dead animal. And after just one day of cold mud and the chill of rotten potatoes seeping through your very pores, you learn the valuable potato harvest lesson No. 612: Clothing choice based on warmth and practicality is far more important than wearing the jeans that make your butt look good.
Even when you’ve learned to dress warmly and in layers, you still greet the early morning with a thread of hope that you’ll see raindrops against your bedroom window pane as you open the blinds. You flip on the TV to “The Potato Picker’s Special” on WAGM-8, squinting at the bright screen in the dark living room, waiting, hoping to see your farmer’s name scroll across the bottom of the screen followed by “not digging today” or at least “late start 10 a.m.” Seven days a week, all hours the sun shines and so many hours it doesn’t, you sort, dig, pick and handle potatoes.
And despite it all, the dust in your eyes from the harvester fan, the dull ache in your lower back and the seemingly never-ending sea of undug potato rows, you accept and complete your job. This is harvest and there’s work to be done, but also there’s fun to be had. You never have quite heard a whoop of joy until you tell a tired bunch of teenagers in the potato house that the harvester has “broke down.” Those are the moments we reveled in, flipping open our lunch pails, eager to see what special foods our mothers had packed us that day. Our hands were dirty as we reached into those small tin cans of Vienna Sausages, wiping the salty gel onto our pants and feeling around for the dish of mustard we hoped she didn’t forget to pack. We wallowed in all the Twinkies, Nutty Bars, Pringles, Potato Stix and cans of soda our hearts desired, loving every bite of our harvest lunches and knowing our usual healthy diets would return along with our usual sleep and school schedules all too soon.
We learned a few life lessons no classroom could ever teach us and we heard jokes our mothers would have definitely disapproved of. But we were growing up and a stretch of the bridge that took us from kid to adult was on a potato farm.
We met and bonded with new friends from surrounding towns, our less-than-glamorous working conditions setting the stage for loyal friendships to grow and remain, even when we would face one another on the basketball court five months later.
There was something about working the potato harvest that set us kids apart from the rest of the state. We had the inside scoop on what sustained our local economy and we lent a hand, albeit a muddy, blistered hand, in helping to bring another local Aroostook County tradition to completion and we were stronger, healthier, wiser and richer kids because of it.
I’m the mother now and I’m the one packing the lunch pail for my 14-year-old son. I now understand how my mother must have felt when her grocery list included the junk food mine now does. And the dial on my washing machine will stay on “2nd rinse” for a few more weeks. I somehow forgot exactly how many pair of gloves a 12-hour shift requires and I also forgot that one pair of harvest work boots can stink up an entire garage. I smile when he complains about being tired and I just hold my breath when the stench of rotten potatoes follows him through my front door. But mostly, I’m proud to see that despite so many differences between his generation and mine, some things really do stay the same and I’m thankful my kid is part, truly part of Harvest in Aroostook County.
Editor’s Note: The column was first published on Monday, Sept. 26, as a blog entry online at stupidgrin.blogspot.com. It is reprinted here by permission of the author Renee Chalou-Ennis of Presque Isle.