Kids in Potato Field in Maine in 1980s

The author and some friends on a break from picking potatoes

Maine Potato Harvest

Fall in Maine, is a sensory experience with cool breezes, beautiful colors, and the smell of dirt (at least in Aroostook County.) It’s this smell of dirt that brings me back to the iconic Maine potato harvest.

When I was young, schools let out for three weeks every fall. The kids then had time to pick potatoes. We would throw them into baskets and dump them into barrels.  We had thick paper tickets in our pockets with our own number on them, so the guys loading the trucks would grab the tickets and the farmer would count them at the end of the day. The pay was about 50 cents per barrel, if I remember correctly.  One year, it rained so hard and the fields were so muddy, the farmer took pity on us and paid a dollar a barrel, because the picking was so difficult.

I found this old picture of my friends and me taking a lunch break during a harvest in the early to mid 1980s.  I’m pretty sure I’m drinking water out of a recycled milk jug. We would fill that jug the night before and put it in the freezer, so it would thaw slowly the next day and be nice and cold.

Farm labor was the original “take your kid to work day” experience, as my young mother dragged her two kids to the field every year. We thought we were working, but we were mostly playing in the dirt. I have fond memories of spending the beautiful fall days outside with my brother and cousins while our moms worked. My mother could pick 80 barrels in day! We would stop by the local store on the way home and they would send one of us kids in to buy bread and milk because we were less dirty than they were. Mud caked the knees of everyone’s jeans, except for the hard core pickers like my mother, who stood on their feet and bent over for more speed. I tried that technique but often resorted to knee picking for a break now and then.

As I got older, the field was a great place to hang out with friends, develop crushes on the cute older boys who ran the grappling hook on the trucks, and compete for barrel count with the other workers. We busted our behinds to get a row ahead of everyone else, but never let anyone get too far behind without helping them get caught up (using our tickets on the barrels we filled, of course. We weren’t that generous!)

For the last decade or so, harvest break in schools has either been eliminated or reduced to one week. Modern technology has eliminated the need for manual picking and mechanical harvesters do most of the work.  We still have a big potato industry, though, as farmers and distributors have changed with the times.  Maine farmers supply much of the seed potatoes for the entire east coast. They sell quality potatoes to french fry and chip manufacturers, as well as grocery suppliers.

Although I remember “the good old days” fondly, and like most Gen-Xers, feel that the younger generation has missed a powerful lesson in work ethic, I’m encouraged about the future of farming in Maine. With cutting edge technology and innovative sustainability programs, we are keeping up with the times. At F.A. Peabody Insurance, we have experts in farm insurance geared specifically to the needs of the Maine potato harvest.