Maine pupils take 'recess' to pick potatoes

Clair Sylvester stands on the back of a flatbed truck at the edge of the potato field and surveys his ''troops'' as they pile off the bus. Some 60 girls and boys in thick sweaters, blue jeans, and work boots huddle together giggling and chattering in the chill September morning. Each one is carrying a pair of work gloves and a lunch pail.

Mr. Sylvester starts with the rules. It is the first day of the harvest and he aims to lay down the law straightaway:

''Line your barrels in a single row.

''Stay out of the way of the tractor.

''Stay off the equipment.

''Keep track of your lunches. It is your responsibility to make sure your lunch pail doesn't get run over by the truck or the tractor in the field.''

Then, Sylvester's voice takes on a menacing tone. ''And above all, there will be no throwing of potatoes.'' The warning is repeated for effect.

There's tension in the air. For some of the young pickers it will be their first taste of hard work - and of real money.

It will also be their first taste of a northern Maine tradition. For as long as anyone around these parts can remember, the region's high school and junior high school students have provided the bulk of the labor needed to complete Maine's fall potato harvest.

This year is no different.

Among the crowd of students are many veterans of past potato harvests; indeed , it is rare to find anyone living in or around the Presque Isle region of Aroostook County who hasn't been a potato picker at one time or another.

''When I was three years old, I used to pick potatoes for my grandfather,'' says Sylvester, who has run the picking crews on Herschel Smith's 1,700-acre potato farm here for the past 12 years.

In years past, anyone big enough to hold a basket participated in the fall potato harvest. But today, it is against US labor laws to hire children under 12 years of age for field work.

Because of the proliferation of such child-labor regulations, farmers here say northern Maine may be the only place left in the US where children from the wider community continue to play a major role in the annual harvest.

Most of the locals wouldn't want it any other way.

''It's a family affair - the whole community gets involved,'' says Dorothy Kelley, executive vice-president of the Maine Potato Council.

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''We do not have migrant labor,'' she says, adding, ''Our youth last year earned over $2 million. That money stays in Aroostook County. Some goes to buy winter clothes and bicycles, and some is saved for education, but most of it goes back to the merchants of the county.''

When Sylvester gives the word the pickers fan out across the potato field and take up their positions. As the plow moves up and down the rows unearthing the potatoes two rows at a time, the youngsters move across the field and pick up the potatoes. When a picker has filled a hand basket, it is emptied into a barrel on which the picker has placed his or her name tag. When the barrel is full, the picker has earned 50 cents. (A barrel holds roughly 165 pounds of potatoes.)

Most pickers expect to make between $100 and $300 for the three-week harvest season - and that's no small potatoes for a junior high school student.

The schools in and around Presque Isle closed last week for three weeks (they open three weeks early in August) to enable the area's students to help local farmers get their crop into packing and storage sheds before October frost. Roughly 65 percent of area high school and junior high school students participate.

The older students work on mechanized potato harvesters or as truck drivers, loaders, and sorters in the fields and packing sheds. The younger students work as potato pickers - laboring with a basket and a pair of work gloves across row after row of unearthed potatoes.

Only about 10 percent of Maine's potato crop is harvested by hand- picking crews. The vast majority of potatoes are dug and trucked to storage with the help of large mechanical harvesters. Nonetheless, some farmers still rely on the traditional, more expensive, and time-consuming method of hand picking.

Hand picking is necessary, farmers say, in small or steep fields where a mechanical harvester might have difficulty maneuvering. Some farmers also prefer to pay the higher prices for hand picking because it generally results in less damage to the potatoes and thus a higher-quality crop.

Sylvester's group of young pickers this year includes several veterans. Among them: Dale Simpson, David Cray, and Brian Saucio, all 15 years old and all of Presque Isle High. Each says he has at least four years of picking experience under his belt.

''The thing about this is you pick potatoes and then you don't want to eat them for about a month,'' says David. He says that next year he'll be old enough to try for a job as a loader or truck driver.

Among the greatest challenges facing potato pickers, according to these veterans, is having to get up early and then bending over all day. ''My back gets sore after a while,'' admits Dale as he stoops over a row of potatoes, flipping them with machine-like efficiency into his basket. He says of the job: ''It's pretty good; it's money anyway.''

''It's better than going to school,'' says Robert Ciambor of Presque Isle High.

Many of the local parents agree. They feel that the three weeks of field work and the subsequent wages they earn will give the young students a greater appreciation of the value of hard work. They see it as a supplement to their children's education.

Others aren't so sure. Some teachers in the school system have complained that when the students return from the three-week harvest they must begin their school lessons all over again because the children have forgotten what they learned earlier.

As he moves quickly down a row of potatoes, Dale Simpson keeps up a steady banter with another picker nearby. His colleague wonders aloud how much money he'll make if he picks 20 barrels of potatoes a day. Dale announces that he expects to pick 30 barrels a day.

He then pulls his shirt sleeve back exposing a combination wristwatch/calculator. In seconds, young Simpson calculates his expected daily earnings, his expected total earnings, and the bonus he expects to earn as a result of his working for the entire three-week harvest period. (Growers pay pickers a 5-cent-a-barrel bonus if they work for the entire harvest season.)

''Last year I made $118.75 with a broken arm,'' says 12-year-old Shelley McMann of Skyway Junior High. She says this year she expects to earn between $ 150 and $160. Most of it will be used to buy winter clothes, she says. And the rest?

''I want to put $20 in the bank.''

Why?

''Savings account,'' she explains.

''For a lot of kids this is the first money they earn. It kind of gives them a working background,'' says Greg Smith, a fourth-generation potato grower and son of Herschel Smith who owns the farm.

But Herschel Smith and others wonder whether the tradition of potato picking will fade out as farmers continue to push toward higher efficiency and greater use of mechanized harvesters. Clair Sylvester says, ''I think you are going to find that within five years you won't have pickers anymore.''

If that happens, they say, there will still be jobs available for local students, but the positions will be limited to the older students who can legally work with machinery. It would, nonetheless, mark the end of a longtime Aroostook County tradition.

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