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Harvest in The County - from field to fries

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Dry summer, then comes fall
Which I depend on most of all
- 'King Harvest (Has Surely Come)'; The Band
I got em in the ground, I can't quit now
You won't find me grieving.'
I'll bet you five dollars it's my best year yet
Cause it looks like I'm gonna break even
- 'Tater Raisin' Man'; Dick Curless

Autumn arrives in Aroostook County before it makes an appearance anywhere else in Maine. The leaves begin changing in early September, while sweaters usually come out of the dresser in mid-August. 'Back to School' ads show up in the paper, on TV and radio in July in Aroostook County, which tends to harsh a student's summer mellow.

For one dedicated group of County residents, the arrival of fall means two things: hard work and money. Potato harvest in Aroostook County is a magical time, and I am reminded of it every year. As a kid, I worked in the fields with my friends each fall. The mornings were cold and often wet, and unless we had steady rain, we would spend between 10 and 12 hours per day in the field. We became extremely dirty and very tired but we had barrels of fun. It taught me what real work is all about. I also learned that it paid to stay busy.

In essence, this was the average day in the life of a potato picker. We arrived in the field at around 6:30 or 7 a.m. and were handed a basket and a stack of tickets all bearing the same number. We would stake out a section of the field (as much as we felt we could keep up with), and that was our area until we moved to the next field. The tractor came by to dig up a fresh row of potatoes and we would pick our section as quickly as possible, filling our basket and dumping the potatoes into a barrel. Once the barrel was filled, you inserted a ticket bearing your number into rim and moved on to do it again. On my best day, I picked 33 barrels and brought home $16.50. I was not a potato picking all-star, but I was consistent. My grandmother told me stories about picking potatoes in Canada when she was young. She claimed to have had many 100-plus barrel days and was paid 5 cents per barrel. That didn't seem possible to me, but I'm sure she was telling the truth.

I have a theory about people from The County. They tend to be honest and genuine straight shooters who tell it like it is because they don't have time to fool around. They value things that matter most in this life, especially family and friends. I'm convinced that the potato harvest is directly involved with instilling some of those values.

Dana Wright is a fourth-generation potato farmer in Littleton. Along with his son

Jonathan and brother Dennis, he operates Wright Farms and has been growing potatoes for decades. In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that Dana is my brother-in law. When I became old enough to work on a potato harvester (where we were paid by the hour as opposed to by the barrel), I went to work for Dana.

In addition to farming potatoes, Dana also worked for the Farmer's Home Administration (later called Farm Service Agency) for 38 years, providing farmers with credit to purchase farms and plant and harvest their crops. After retiring (a figure of speech; potato farmers never really retire), Dana signed on to work for the Agricultural Bargaining Council in Presque Isle, where he currently negotiates contracts between farmers and processors including the McCain Foods plant in Easton and Naturally Potatoes in Mars Hill.

There was a time when Aroostook County was the top potato producing area in the nation. 'Back in the 1940s, Aroostook County had over 200,000 acres of potatoes and now we're down to 56,000 are in fourth or fifth place in the amount of potatoes grown,' according to Wright.

Depending on the farm operation, Wright says it costs the average Aroostook County farmer approximately $2,000 to plant one acre of potatoes. I asked Wright if the return on that investment is substantial enough for most farmers to sustain the operation. 'That's a tough question,' he responded. 'It varies with the size of the operation. The return is minimal. There is no giant payoff. The average return is probably between 3 and 6 percent, which is why the average farm has had to get bigger because the return is smaller.'

Wright Farms grows about 300 acres of potatoes each year for McCain Foods and are one of approximately 60 Aroostook County farm operations that supply crops to the company. Potatoes are the heart of McCain and have been for more than 50 years.

Some surprising spud statistics: One third of all French fries consumed on this planet are produced by McCain. They process more than 5 million tons of potatoes annually. One third of all potatoes harvested in Aroostook County each September and October are purchased by McCain and turned into French fries, Tater Tots, waffle fries, hash browns and other delectable potato-related goodies. Everyone interviewed for this story agreed that Aroostook County's economy benefits enormously from the combined efforts of farmers, McCain and the restaurants and retailers who sell County-grown potato products. It's a symbiotic relationship that continues to evolve and improve just like the process of getting the potatoes out of the ground.

Planting usually begins in late April and continues for much of May. After that, it's 'rock picking' time. When a new crop of potatoes is planted, rocks of varying size are brought to the surface and they have to go. I spent several Memorial Day weekends picking rocks in the County, and after that experience, almost everything else sounds like a vacation by comparison. Donating a kidney? Sure, come and get it. In fact, I'll take it out for you. I've picked rocks. Caught in a blizzard on an unmarked road without heat, food and water? I can survive that. I've picked rocks. When I reminded Dana of some of my rock picking memories, he said, 'It is important but overall, it's a very small thing compared to everything else we have to do.' These guys are tough.

From June through September, farmers nurture the crop and pray that the summer won't be too dry or too wet. 'Weather is the biggest variable for a potato farmer,' according to Wright. 'It dictates when we can start in the spring and what the growing season is like. It also affects the harvest and our ability to get the potatoes out of the ground. It controls everything.'

Dana Wright says the biggest change he has witnessed in the potato-growing industry is the mechanization of growing and harvesting the crops. Employing potato pickers (usually students) to manually pick the crop and fill the barrels is mostly a memory at this point, according to Wright. Today, there are no commercial farms in Aroostook County that employ pickers - it's all done by a relatively small crew on the potato harvester.

Between the harvester and potato house crews, Wright Farms employs 12 people during the harvest. Twenty to 30 years ago, a farm this size might have employed upwards of 30 to 50 potato pickers to do it by hand.

Because the potato harvest has become more streamlined with fewer jobs available to grade school students, some schools in Aroostook County have adjusted their schedules. Wright says that students in Presque-Isle and Caribou are still released for three weeks each fall, but in other districts, the harvest recess is a thing of the past. 'To work on a potato harvester, you must be at least 16 years of age,' he said. 'In Houlton, school always got out for three weeks and today that's been cut back to [one]. Some areas no longer let kids out for the harvest.'

The harvest school recess is a frequent topic of discussion and debate among school boards and farmers. Despite a lower profile in some districts, students are still vital to Aroostook's potato harvest. 'The percentage of kids actually taking part in the harvest may be smaller these days but that group still makes up a big percentage of the crew hired by the farmers to get the crop out,' according to Bart Bradbury, Field Manager for McCain Foods.

Bradbury has fond memories of working during the harvest during his formative years. 'I picked potatoes when I was little until I was old enough to move into the potato house to hold the chute and fill the bin. I drove a truck, a windrower, all of those jobs,' Bradbury remembers.

As for the aforementioned mechanization that has made for a more efficient potato harvest, there is a human element to the harvester. The harvester worker stands in front of a moving belt of freshly dug potatoes, tops, rocks and soil. Their job is to remove as much of the residual material as possible to leave only the potatoes which work their way up a chute and land safely in a truck before being unloaded at the potato house. This time of year, McCain is on-site daily to pick up freshly dug potatoes and immediately turn them into delicious fries.

Bart Bradbury says most people are surprised at how quickly the field-to-fries process happens. 'This time of year, we pick up the potatoes as soon as they're out of the field,' Bradbury told me. 'If they're harvested this morning, they'll be French fries by supper time. It takes about two hours from the time the truck is unloaded to the time they are turned into fries.'

Many of McCain's employees have direct ties to the potato harvest. Erica Fitzpatrick-Peabody, agronomist for McCain, is one. Agronomy is the science of producing better crops. 'We buy everything local,' Fitzpatrick-Peabody said. 'We're proud of the fact that all of our potatoes are sourced from Aroostook County.' Erica grew up on a potato farm down the road from Wright Farms. Her father, Albert, is one of the area's best-known potato farmers.

In 1999, McDonald's restaurants in Maine made a commitment to use only Aroostook County potatoes for their French fries. Those fries are processed by McCain at their plant in Easton. Douglas Quagliaroli operates McDonald's restaurants in Old Town, Belfast, Bucksport, Ellsworth and Machias. Quagliaroli says it is a source of pride to use only Maine-grown potatoes for their fries. 'We did a lot of advertising at first to let people know that we now serve only Maine potatoes but for some reason, many people still don't know about it,' Quagliaroli told me. 'People in Aroostook County know because of what it's done for the economy up there. All of the McDonald's operators in Maine are very proud of that.'

McDonald's franchise owners such as Quagliaroli had to convince their parent company to let them use Maine potatoes exclusively. To arrive at today's delicious, golden brown Maine-grown McDonald's fry, considerable testing had to be done. 'We were involved with the initial testing after pushing McDonald's to let us use Maine potatoes,' Quagliaroli said. 'They set up a test base that we had to follow, which included sampling, customer comments and sales tracking. It took a modern facility up in the County that could handle the volume we need.'

Quagliaroli admits they had some growing pains at first before achieving French fry perfection. 'The quality of the potato was never in question, it was how they were processed at first,' he said. 'That's where McCain's came in really made a difference. We tested them over three or four years and came to a taste that our customers really enjoy. At that point, we started receiving a lot of compliments.'

Quagliaroli says he was amazed when he first toured the Easton facility. 'The quality and consistency of our fries is outstanding and McCain has a lot to do with that,' he said. 'That plant in Easton is incredible. It's like something out of Star Wars.' Once the potatoes are dropped in, they are never touched.'

Wright believes many consumers would be surprised to find out how much work went into the creation of that box of French fries from McDonald's. 'It takes a tremendous amount of effort from the farmer, the processor and the restaurant to get those fries in your hand, but it is very satisfying for me to buy and enjoy them knowing we may have grown them.'

Planting, fertilizing, cultivating, nurturing and a healthy dose of love and prayer go into the potato harvest. For a farmer in Aroostook County, it describes how they grow their crop and how they grow their family. It's a metaphor that is not lost on Dana Wright or his son Jonathan, who has been farming with his father for more than 16 years. Jonathan is the fifth generation of potato farmers in this family and has hopes that his young son Ryan will continue the legacy.

Mike Dow is part of The Mike and Mike Show' airing each morning on Kiss 94.5. Check him out at www.facebook.com/mikeandmike and www.mikedow.net.

Last modified on Tuesday, 18 October 2011 14:14

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