VAN BUREN — Summers are always busy at the LaJoie family farm in Van Buren, one of the Aroostook County towns perched at the border of Maine and Canada. But in 2012 it was particularly hectic. The husband-and-wife writing and directing team of Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly, along with their cast and crew, had descended on Van Buren to make an independent movie about two teenagers trying to escape the confines of their small-town upbringing in potato country (their desperate measures include drug running). The LaJoies’ potato fields would figure heavily in what would become “Beneath the Harvest Sky,” along with their main crop, the blue potatoes that the LaJoie family sells to Terra Chips, which Jet Blue had adopted as their signature chip because they are in fact, blue.
The LaJoies date back to 17th-century Canada, where they also farmed. An ancestor married an American woman and the family border-hopped to Maine in 1886. They’re raising the fifth generation of Maine LaJoies now. Drive down Route 1 from Van Buren toward Caribou and you’ll follow their land as it stretches more than three miles along the road – it’s marked by a 23-foot white cross.
With “Beneath the Harvest Sky” in theaters and available on video on demand now, we dropped by the LaJoies’ warehouse to talk about moviemaking, the tradition of giving kids a school break in the fall to help bring in the harvest and, of course, those blue potatoes. They’re practically celebrities these days – Modern Farmer magazine had visited the day before. It was late April, but the entire building smelled faintly of earthy potatoes, even the office shared by co-owners Jay LaJoie; his father, Gilbert; and his uncle, Dominic. Jay LaJoie answered most of the questions; Dominic chimed in occasionally, as noted with the initials “JL” and “DL” below. We’ve edited the conversation for clarity and length.
Terra Chips became a sponsor of the movie and is featuring it on bags of its blue potato chips. Which came first, that sponsorship or the LaJoie family relationship with the filmmakers?
JL: The filmmakers found us through an interest in the whole culture up here. They were up here in 2010 visiting. We became good friends right off the bat. They did more research into the culture and what farming up here consisted of. Originally (the movie) was called “Blue Potato.” The film had a different angle then. It had more of a farming story to it, about a farmer that experimented on blue potatoes. Then Aron and Gita decided to take more of a direct approach to make it more a movie that has a setting in an agricultural background. They looked at what we did for markets and approached Terra chips to see if they would be interested in partnering up.
Do you sell everything you grow to Terra?
JL: They are a piece of the pie. We try to diversify. We grow potatoes but also beets and small grains. Oats has been one of our primary markets, and from time to time we’ll do a little barley as well. The oats get exported to Canada and get processed for Quaker Oats and stuff like that. The beets go to Terra Chips, and they make chips out of them: Sweets and Beets, it’s called. You can find them in Hannaford.
What is your acreage? How much is for potatoes?
JL: We operate 1,300 acres total. Generally half of it is for potatoes and produce… and the other half is for small grains. It’s our rotation deal. We rotate our land with grain, and we underseed it for grasses for soil health.
In the final cut, the dramatic action takes place during the two weeks or so when school is shut down and the high school kids, including one of the main characters, a 17-year-old named Dominic (Callan McAuliffe), is working the harvest in scenes shot on LaJoie land. Is the harvest break still a Van Buren tradition?
JL: Many towns have done away with it. We’ve been lucky enough to hang onto it. I can see in the future it working out to where just the kids who work take off the time. It is definitely a controversial break. All school is let out, therefore elementary kids need supervision at home… It can pose an inconvenience if parents (with jobs) have to find someone to watch their kids.
Do you still hire students?
JL: We try to employ as many kids as possible for the harvest. We feel it really develops a good work ethic. I know myself, for example, when I’ve gone to college in the Bangor area (at Husson) in applying for jobs, if they hear you are from The County and have that background, they are more likely to hire you, because of having that experience, the work ethic of having worked long hours. Last year we had between 10 and 15 kids working, which is a fairly significant number for the size of our farm. We do our best to work around their sports schedules and such.
What was it like having all these actors in town? There were a lot of recognizable faces in the cast, like Sarah Sutherland, whose father is Keifer Sutherland, and who plays Dominic’s love interest. She’s on “Veep.” The guy who plays the potato farmer, David Denham, makes regular appearances on “Parenthood.” And Carrie Preston, who plays Dominic’s best friend Casper’s mom, is on “The Good Wife.”
JL: It was fun. Everybody was kind of like a family and worked together really well. After Sarah’s part was done, she hung around for the remainder of the shoot. Carrie Preston is on “The Good Wife”? All the time? I watch that show.
DL: She’s also in “Person of Interest.”
Dominic, did Aron and Gita name the character of Dominic after you?
DL: I don’t think so. They just tried to pick French names. Things they heard around town.
There are a couple of LaJoies in the cast, playing a forklift driver and some high school kids at a party. None of you is in the cast – what were you doing?
JL: I was the transportation captain for the movie, and my father here was the fabricator guy. We were their go-to people. We moved all their equipment – the four-wheelers and pickup trucks and hauling all that back and forth to wherever they needed it. It was just a go-go-go extremely busy summer. In their research phase, they would bring us ideas on props and whatnot and seek our assistance, like, “is this possible? Can we build this?”
The premise of “Beneath the Harvest Sky” is that these two boys, Dominic and Casper, are desperate to get out of town, to move to Boston. Is that typical of young people from Van Buren?
JL: It’s hard to say. I think a lot of kids go through high school not sure what they are going to do when they grow up. And oftentimes they’ll leave, and sometimes come back and sometimes not. Obviously, I am passionate about where I live and I enjoy the way of life up there. The movie tells one story.
DL: It’s 50-50, I think, and no different from any school or town in Maine or the rest of the country. Half the students can’t wait to get out of town. Half of them want to stick around mom or dad or whatever. I don’t think Van Buren should be portrayed as the poster child for towns kids who want to leave. I know the movie kind of geared it that way. Some people were offended by that, but it’s a fictional movie.
A last question: How did that giant cross end up on your farmland?
JL: My grandmother won the cross at a Catholic retreat she attended. Oftentimes around the farm when we would be having a bad day or looking for something we couldn’t seem to find, my grandfather would tell me to pray by the cross and ask God to help us through the hard time. It’s a great asset to our homestead.
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