Grayden and Gavin Hemphill unload potatoes at Hemphill Farms in Presque Isle on April 30. Credit: David Marino Jr. / The Star-Herald

A formal harvest break from school has been a vital part of Aroostook County’s history and culture since at least 1945.

Aroostook County students have been excused from classes for two to three weeks each fall to work for farmers during the annual potato harvest. This year, even with debate about sending students back to in-person instruction amid the COVID-19 pandemic, not a single district that participated last year has decided to ax the break.

Support for the recess is far from unanimous. Some parents see it as an unnecessary disruption of the school year that benefits a minority of students — around 20 percent of high school students work the harvest. Some school districts, especially in the southern Aroostook area, have eliminated the break.

Yet advocates led by farmers argue that student labor is an indispensable part of a successful harvest, constituting jobs that would not be filled otherwise. While acknowledging there are potential drawbacks, superintendents say the break is necessary in a highly agricultural region.

Louis LaBrie established Labrie Farms in St. Agatha, which started out with 65 acres in 1945,and is currently owned and run by Father Keith, his brother Duane and Keith’s son, Jacob LaBrie. Today it is a third and fourth generation-run farm that grows potatoes and small grains on around 1,000 acres of farmland. It is part of the 317,000 acres owned by the 766 farms in Aroostook County as recorded by the 2017 agriculture census.

LaBrie’s has always employed student workers, and now hires around 14 each season who make up almost 85 percent of the farm’s harvest employees.

Potatoes blossom in a field on the Centerline Road in Presque Isle on July 24. Credit: Paula Brewer / The Star-Herald

“In the past the students would pick the potatoes from the rows by hand and fill barrels,” farm owner Sylvia LaBrie Corriveau said. “There was also no time constraint back then. They would simply return to school when harvest was finished depending on the season’s conditions.”

School districts across The County differ in their harvest break policies. Some communities opt for the traditional three-week harvest, while others allow two or even one.

SAD 1, with students from Presque Isle, Mapleton, Chapman, Castle Hill and Westfield, has one of the longest harvest breaks in The County. Presque Isle High School students are off for a full three weeks, from Sept. 18 to Oct. 13.

Out of 490 Presque Isle High School students surveyed by faculty, 82 (17 percent) said they participated in last year’s harvest, 140 (29 percent) did non-harvest work and 268 (55 percent) did not work.

Older students were far more likely to work during the harvest than younger ones: 20 percent of seniors worked last year, while 47 percent worked at non-harvest jobs. Among freshmen, 10 percent worked in the harvest while 19 percent did other work.

Maine law places several restrictions on farm work for children under the age of 16, including rules on operating heavy machinery and using conveyors. Harvest workers perform a variety of jobs, including handpicking the crop, transporting potatoes and driving a truck. Many others work inside potato houses.

There has been sizable debate on whether the district should maintain the break. The school board voted in 2018 to eliminate it but reinstated the recess a year later after outcry from farmers. Support among residents will secure the harvest a spot on the calendar for the foreseeable future, SAD 1 Superintendent Ben Greenlaw said.

The entire student body of SAD 45, which includes Perham, Wade and Washburn, has a two-week harvest break, from Sept. 28 to Oct. 9. Twenty-eight percent of Washburn High School students worked the harvest in 2019, while 29 percent worked other jobs.

Superintendent Larry Worcester said he was very cognizant of the farmers in his district who pay sizable taxes that fund the schools. Last year he agreed to a request from about 15 local farmers that harvest break start later in the year.

“If you look at all of us in the Central Aroostook area, we’re in an agricultural region,” Worcester said. “That’s what our main business is.”

The Easton School Department, with a three-week harvest break for all students beginning in late September, has about 20 percent of its high school students work in the harvest, Superintendent Mark Stanley said.

In this BDN file photo, County high schoolers pick potatoes during the annual potato harvest break, during which several school districts allow teens to take a few weeks off to help harvest potatoes.

Stanley was aware of the arguments against harvest break — mainly that it disrupts the school year to the detriment of students’ education — but he said comparisons of test scores between his district and others in The County and state did not substantiate that claim.

High school students are the only ones to get two-week breaks in RSU 39 (Caribou and Stockholm) and SAD 20 (Fort Fairfield), from Sept. 28 to Oct. 9.

Tim Doak, superintendent for both districts, said students working in the harvest hovers around 18 percent to 20 percent each year in both districts. He said he didn’t plan to alter the policy unless that number dipped below 15 percent, when he would contact local farmers about a potential change.

SAD 42, with students from Mars Hill, Bridgewater and Blaine, has a three-week harvest break from Sept. 18 to Oct. 12. Superintendent Elaine Boulier said that about 25 percent to 31 percent of grades seven-12 students work during the harvest.

MSAD 24 out of Van Buren, with one school building that houses pre-K through grade 12, allows all students to break for harvest, even though roughly 10 students actually work. Students who work longer than a week are allowed excused absences, and must arrange with their teachers to catch up on missed school work, Alexis Sirois, public relations correspondent for Van Buren District School, said.

Van Buren’s break was reduced from two weeks to one in 2017 due to declining student involvement.

“Even with the low [student participation], farmers, community members and staff felt that potato harvest is an important part of the culture in Aroostook County and wanted students to understand that,” Sirois said.

For the school administrative units that make up Valley Unified Education Service Center — Madawaska School Department and MSADs 27 and 33 — Superintendent Ben Sirois said that all of the middle/high schools have the same break, but the pre-K through sixth grade schools will start two weeks later than the others and stay in session through harvest.

About 15 percent to 25 percent of the eligible students from the three school districts work during the break, he said.

“Madawaska has the lowest percentage [of participation] while MSAD33 in Frenchville/St. Agatha has the highest percentage as that community continues to have large potato farmers relying on school-aged harvest workers,” Sirois said.

Valley Unified also allows students to extend their harvest break an extra week if the farmer and parents sign a permission slip.

As some regions become less agricultural and agriculture is increasingly mechanized, the harvest break has become more controversial in Aroostook County schools.

Many schools no longer participate, including RSU 29, SAD 70 and RSU 50 in the Houlton area. Other schools that don’t break for harvest include Woodland Consolidated School, Region Two School of Applied Technology in Houlton, Limestone Community School, Connor Consolidated School and Greater Houlton Christian Academy.

Opponents to harvest break say that the prolonged interruption from school is antiquated for a region that is less agricultural than decades past. Some have argued that the break puts County students at a disadvantage compared to others around the state.

SAD 32, made up of Ashland, Garfield Plantation, Masardis, Oxbow Plantation, is the only district in the Presque Isle area that does not have a harvest break because of the low number of local farmers. Superintendent Gehrig Johnson said that students who want to work in the harvest may apply for excused absences. Only two students did so last fall.

County farmers maintain that the help they receive from students during the harvest is indispensable, and provides adolescents a vital experience along with extra cash.

One Madawaska student who has worked the last five years at LaBrie Farms since she was 13 said that despite the 12-hour work days for seven straight days for anywhere from one to three weeks, she felt fortunate to get the experience.

“I believe that harvest break alone gives kids the chance to build a strong work ethic all while making good money to save up for their future endeavors,” Keri Hebert said. “Harvest break is also a tremendous help for the potato farmers that get to recruit young hard-working individuals.”

Farm owner Sylvia Corriveau said she hopes the harvest breaks will continue.

“There is no doubt that having students participate ultimately helps us get the crop harvested,” Corriveau said. “It can also teach the students about hard work, friendships, work relationships, and just exactly how much effort it takes to put those French fries on a plate.”

Easton Superintendent Mark Stanley and others see the harvest as an essential aspect of the County educational experience.

“[Students] learn things working in the fields that they are not going to learn in school,” Stanley said. “That has a huge educational benefit even if it’s not something that we can put down in a grade book.”

 Correction: In an earlier version of this story, the owners of LaBrie Farms were misnamed.