Potato country

A local harvest, unearthed
By Matthew Bellico, Boston Globe Correspondent
October 5, 2008

It was 4:30 a.m., and they were already talking potatoes at a small television station on the outskirts of town. In the waning hours of summer, with the thermometer struggling to reach 28 degrees, I arrived half asleep and half frozen to listen to the conversation firsthand.

For 48 years farmers across Aroostook County have awakened to "Potato Pickers' Special," a local institution that provides the latest tuber news each morning during the fall potato harvest. And this day I arose with them, mentally noting the times that each farm would start to pick that day and memorizing the benefits of a new compost available to growers.

I had not traveled to the top of Maine out of some inherent fondness for the spud. No man's love for a vegetable should go that far. Instead, I had come for John Steinbeck.

Two days earlier I had set out from Boston to see the harvest for myself, pulled by the same autumnal tradition that seduced the author of "The Grapes of Wrath" and "Of Mice and Men" when he traveled cross-country in the fall of 1960.

Feeling that he hadn't seen the true America in years and viewing that as "criminal," Steinbeck left his Long Island home for a three-month journey. Published as "Travels With Charley in Search of America" two years later, Steinbeck's trip took him through the Wisconsin Dells and the Dakota Badlands, California's redwood forests, and the desegre gating South.

But the author wanted first to see Aroostook County during the harvest. "Maine was my design, potatoes my purpose," as he put it. As a native New Englander, the fact that I had never experienced it seemed at least a misdemeanor. So I made haste - if that's an accurate way to describe a seven-hour drive - for the largest county east of the Mississippi River. It's the only time I've crossed town lines with no names, only geographic demarcations such as T1-R6.

At the end, when Interstate 95 meets Route 1 in tiny Houlton, the memory of the long drive quickly fades. If New England has a big sky country, this is it. Aroostook is also unmistakably potato country. Farmland extends in almost every direction, gently rolling toward a horizon punctuated by tall pines.

Some fields were green with broccoli yet to be harvested and others yellow and closely trimmed, the remnants of the year's canola harvest. But brown potato fields dominate, each filled with rows piled high with dirt that protects the potatoes from the summer sun and the autumn frost.

Route 1 is dotted with small farm stands, most on the honor system, where locals and travelers can purchase potatoes at prices that would make any greengrocer shutter his business. Who could compete with 50 pounds of Yukon Gold for $10?

Aroostook farmers deal in volume. In 1960, Steinbeck wrote: "I saw mountains of potatoes - oceans - more potatoes than you would think the world's population could consume in a hundred years."

Any incredulity that I might have felt vanished when I saw truck after truck filled with potatoes, so full some were spilling onto the pavement, roll through towns like Caribou and Presque Isle. In fact, 1.6 billion pounds of potatoes were harvested last fall, according to the Maine Potato Board.

It was different when Steinbeck visited. "No one comes down from Canada anymore to help pick potatoes during the harvest," says Don Flannery, the board's executive director, when I mention Steinbeck's friendly encounter with French-Canadian pickers. "You'd be hard pressed to find anyone who handpicks anymore. Most everything is machine harvested now."

Of course, pickers were needed in droves when more than 147,000 acres were under cultivation in 1960, but that acreage was already decreasing as marginal lands were taken out of production. This year, 55,000 acres were planted. But today's 400 or so Maine growers get the most out of their land. New fertilizers, better irrigation systems, and mechanized harvesters, combined with crop rotation, have improved the annual yield.

"My father liked to do things the hard way, so it's a wonder that any of us stuck with it," says Brent Buck, 42, who owns Buck Seed Farms in Mapleton with his two brothers. His father started the farm in the late 1950s after he graduated high school, eventually bringing Brent's grandfather into the business.
Today, it's considered a large farm, with approximately 450 acres devoted to potatoes. I drove up the dirt road to the farm after "Potato Pickers' Special" wrapped up with the naming of the daily trivia winner, ages 5 to 12. While I contemplated the type of 5-year-old that would be up at that hour, I looked across a farmyard bustling with activity and found my answer. Everyone seems to take part in the harvest.

Farmhands were busy arranging the system of sifters and conveyer belts that would bring the potatoes from the trucks to the farm's enormous corrugated steel storage sheds. There the potatoes would be packed in temperature-controlled piles nearly 30 feet high until being shipped for seed to Southern farmers who'll use them to grow their own crops next spring. Unlike 50 years ago, most of Maine's potatoes are not table stock; about 65 percent are used for processing, becoming french fries or chips, and a generous portion of the remainder are used for seed.

Steinbeck, who throughout his travelogue decries the death of tradition in the name of progress, would no doubt have felt his spirits buoyed at the Buck farm that chilly morning. Yes, everything was modernized to the hilt. In fact, I was told today's 400-acre potato farm requires nearly $4 million in capital. But it is a true family operation. Brothers, sons, nieces, and nephews were present, driving potato trucks, operating potato harvesters, sorting potatoes, storing potatoes.

There is a tangible camaraderie around harvest time, on the farm and throughout all Aroostook communities.

"I rode in my father's tractor before I could walk and would fall asleep in his arms," says Jared Buck, 19, who was helping store potatoes with his Uncle Brent. "There is no other place I'd rather be."

Brent, a tall, thoughtful man who speaks with the quiet confidence of someone who knows the potato business inside and out, admittedly gets sentimental during harvest: "There is this unique smell in the air that just isn't around at any other time. It smells of the earth and potatoes and it's something I'll always associate with harvest."

Most people in Aroostook over the age of 50 picked potatoes as teenagers, and the talk in regional newspapers, at roadside diners, and even in local dentists' offices, still reverts to the harvest at this time of year.

The traditional harvest break enjoyed by high school students continues to this day, though the number of students who work harvest jobs is reduced. Some estimate that as many as one-third of students take part directly in harvest during the annual recess, which can last one to three weeks depending upon the school district. Other evidence suggests that less than 10 percent of students in some districts work the harvest.

But those who make use of the break wouldn't have it any other way: the sparkling sunshine, the bright autumn leaves, and, of course, the extra money in their pockets. "The pay is good and I live right down the street," explains Cole Brown, 16, who attends school in Presque Isle and is saving money for a school trip to Europe.

That seemed like logic Steinbeck would approve of, knowing the potato harvest was alive and well in Aroostook County.
Matthew Bellico can be reached at matthew.bellico@gmail.com.