I loved your post this past week on the seaweed harvesting tradition in Brittany, France, and thought I would share with you a special “harvest” that takes place each fall in the area where I grew up!
For many years, I have been wanting to travel “home” to Aroostook County to photograph potato harvest in the Fall. I really wanted to see and capture images of potatoes being picked by hand rather than with harvesters, which are mostly being used today. It was difficult to find a farmer who still has “pickers,” but with the determination of my sister, she was finally able to find one in Fort Fairfield, Maine, right on the Canadian border, who welcomed our visit.
Since I was 8 or 9 years old growing up in Northern Maine, I picked potatoes alongside my siblings, friends and neighbors. Our school year would begin in mid-August. We would go to school for a month, and then be let out to work in the potato fields for 3 weeks, or until all of the potatoes were dug. The first few years my mother allowed us to “pick,” she said she most likely spent more money on laundry detergent and special treats for our lunch boxes than we actually earned, but it was worth it for the experience. Truthfully, I was never a great picker but I loved it. It was mostly about the community of it, and the fact that I could earn enough money, when I got a bit older, to buy my winter clothes, pay for my own Christmas gifts for family, and put 1/2 of what I earned in a savings account for college. I loved that the local radio station would come on the air at 4am and let us know who might not be digging on time because of frost or wet. I loved that the stores in town stayed open well into the evening during harvest so the people who worked in the fields could do their shopping. And I especially loved spending time with my friends in the fields, working hard but also raising some hell on occasion! We would dress in many layers in the morning but by lunchtime we usually had stripped down to our t-shirts. We would go home in the late afternoon tired, very dirty, sun and wind burned but happy with ourselves for a job well done. And I have to admit, I loved that this was the only time all year that my mother would let us eat store-bought sweets. My favorite were the Devil Dogs!
So you can understand why I was very determined to get back to Northern Maine to photograph this dying tradition of hand picking before it is long gone. I hadn’t been in a potato field since I left for college many years ago but everything came immediately flooding back to me with one step into the field; the smell of the dirt, the sound of the digger, the feel of the baskets. I even remembered that the barrels were only suppose to be set up in every OTHER row so the trucks could fit through to pick up the full ones. Nothing had changed except that this farmer no longer uses the colorful, numbered tickets to determine how many barrels were picked by each picker.
On the morning we got word that the farmer was going to dig, I dragged my sister out of bed at 6am, reminiscent of harvest mornings gone by, to head north as I didn’t want to miss a thing. We stopped a couple times on our way to the farm for me to photograph some gorgeous fall foliage. And, when we arrived at the farm, Mr. Bernard Webb of Webb Farms and his family made us feel right at home. They all spent lots of time chatting with us about the the history of the farm and about their family. He even invited us into his kitchen and showed us some great photographs of the farm from over the years. Mr. Webb, his adult children and grandchildren couldn’t have been nicer to us. And the guys and gal picking potatoes were great fun and such hard workers! And of course, we continued the tradition of joking that girls are better pickers than boys, right Shae?
I have so much more to share about potato harvest and the “art” of picking potatoes by hand. My sister and I even had a couple very special things happen that afternoon in the field. But these stories, and many more photos will have to be saved for another day.
I am off to enjoy the rest of this beautiful, colorful Autumn season in New England. I hope next year, Louise, you may be able to join me for fall foliage, and maybe even a trip to Aroostook County to see the harvest!
Lots of love,
A huge thank you to the Webb family for welcoming my sister and me to their beautiful potato farm.