March 4, 2010

SUNDAY OPINIONPotatoes still a crop as sturdy as its growers

— STOCKHOLM — It's called the ''humble potato.'' Served up baked, mashed or fried, it's often the one vegetable a variety of meals have in common. Potatoes are as ubiquitous as apples -- inexpensive, plentiful and ordinary.

At least, that was my view when I married Alan, an Aroostook potato farmer, and moved to The County, having grown up in Central Maine. Potatoes seemed such an easy vegetable to grow with great yields and a forgiving growing season reaching right into October.

The first surprise I encountered when I moved here was the discovery that Aroostook County is one of the only places in the country where students have a break for three weeks in the fall to help bring in the harvest.

These young people pick potatoes on their knees for hours -- many of them to earn money for school clothes. This seemed to me to be a harsh regimen.

In the state capital, when times were tough, we either had clothes made for us by relatives or bought them at jumble sales, but picking potatoes to buy school clothes? That took deprivation to a new level.

Over my years of witnessing potato farming, I have seen the many stages of planting and tending involved, and I have come to the conclusion that far from hardy, potatoes are quite a fussy vegetable to grow.

These tender tubers are subject to blight, uncommon scab and, of course, Colorado potato beetles.

What are not fragile are the folk who raise the taters. Never have I witnessed people more hardworking. Far from feeling oppressed, Aroostook County people take great pride in the hard and heavy work involved in raising potatoes.

Picking potatoes during harvest time is a rite of passage for young people. It teaches them how to work, gives them a sense of worth, and makes them appreciate the value of a dollar. It was no surprise to me to learn that students graduating from the University of Maine at Presque Isle have one of the nation's lowest rates of student debt.

Mechanization over the years has brought many changes to potato farming. Today it is more unusual to see hand-picking in the fields -- young people more often work on the harvesters and graders and in the potato houses.

My husband and his father gave up farming when the barrels of potatoes it cost them $7 to raise fetched only a $1 a barrel at market. Despite the hardships, they loved farming life. Only the prospect of mortgaging the family farm compelled them to quit.

Last autumn I was privileged to visit a few of the remaining farms where hand-picking of potatoes still takes place. Far from complaining about the backbreaking work, the pickers were having fun, and the farmers were determined to plant again next year.

It wasn't the potatoes that were humble. It was me. I realized that raising food for others isn't just a means to a living for these folk -- it is a much-loved and valuable way of life.

— Special to the Telegram

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