Saturday, March 8, 2014
Buck family home in Mapleton, Maine.
The three weeks at the end of September and beginning of October is a time of purpose for the families living in Maine’s northern most county, who are racing against the frost to harvest the potato crop. During this time, members of Aroostook County’s agrarian communities come together as teams out of a shared sense of loyalty as much as necessity.
Since 1948, school districts in the County have closed annually for what is called “harvest recess,” to enable students to work a harvest-related job. At one point a Maine Potato Board survey estimated that 60% of eligible students worked the harvest in the Presque Isle school system. Last year it was just over 21%. *These figures include harvest-support jobs, e.g. kids who babysit for people who are working in the field. Declining student participation due to a fewer number of farms and the improvement of mechanized equipment is leading some school districts in Aroostook County to eliminate the fall break.
Felicia Buck of Mapleton, Maine worked on her hands and knees picking potatoes and putting into baskets and barrels from 6th grade up. Today, only children over the age of 16 are eligible to work in the field or potato house where mechanized harvesting equipment is used.
Felicia’s husband Brent and his two brothers are 2nd generation potato farmers who have run Buck Farms since 1998. They rely on high school students, including two of their three daughters (the third is in college), to help harvest 500 acres (or approximately 13 million pounds) of potatoes. The farm used to hire 16-20 high school students, but now because of equipment changes they do not have the same labor needs.
According to Felicia, kids can earn as much as $1500 in three weeks. “Kids spend money in the County, so it’s good for the economy,” she said. “The boys love it and can’t wait to come back for harvest.”
Having been treated to Felicia’s cooking (she is famous in Mapleton, at least among the potato farmers I spoke with, for her homemade doughnuts and white bread), I can understand why someone would be mighty anxious to get back to where her food is served. See, Felicia, and at times her mother (who is famous for her Orange Rolls –a croissant like pastry with orange peel, sour cream, and sugar in the center that has been dipped into an orange sauce) and sister-in-law (whose brown bread folks in Mapleton are enamored with) provide coffee break to everyone working the harvest for Buck Farms.
Coffee break is a tradition of the potato harvest that has been maintained through the years, from when hand picking potatoes all day was back breaking work. Farmers would start digging at 6 or 6:30 a.m. and have coffee break at 8:30 a.m. They would work for another three (or now more like four) hours and take a 30-minute lunch break. In the afternoon around 2:30 or 3 p.m. another coffee break. Today a few farmers with small operations still pick by hand, but the tradition is observed by all. What’s incredible is the farmers I spoke with all get warm homemade treats each day of the harvest. Darren Chandler, a 5th generation potato farmer, who runs DC Farms with his family in Mapleton, said his mother is known for her breakfast sandwiches with sausage, egg, and cheese.
Wanting to know more growing up in Maine’s potato farming community and about the area’s rich harvest traditions I was deposited at Felicia’s home while she made the day’s break food (her cinnamon rolls, which might be about the best cinnamon rolls I have ever had).
Felicia and her husband Brent live on several acres in a picturesque house built in 1877, where his grandparents formerly lived. When Felicia got married 21 years ago, her father-in-law ran the potato house and Brent worked in the field with his brothers. They left at 5:30 in the morning and didn’t come home till after dark. The wives took hot food to them for breaks and lunch. When they had children, Felicia would haul the kids down for meals with dad. “I never thought too much of it,” she said. “It was a part of life, my sister-in-laws all did it.”
Felicia grew up watching her mother, father, and grandmother cook. When she got married she got all mother’s recipes and this reminder from her grandmother, “You remember, you’re a Hubbard, and when you’re a Hubbard you gotta know how to cook.”
“At my house we ate between 4:30 – 5:30 p.m. and it was hearty meals,” Felicia shared. “We would have chicken stew, roast…My father hunted, so we had moose, deer, all of that. Always had a meat, always had a potato, always a vegetable. It was never anything but homemade bread, homemade pickles. People just don’t do that today. We had a different homemade sweet every night. No store bought cookies or jams.”
Growing up in Aroostook County she had baked beans, bread, potato salad, and hotdogs every Saturday night. “You didn’t miss Saturday night bean supper,” she said. “Probably in the whole 18 years living at home I might not have had it twice.” Since being married Felicia thinks she has maybe made it 20 times. Rather, she is inspired by dishes she has in restaurants or reads about. Felicia might have had spaghetti for dinner as a child, but now it’s Pasta Alfredo, Chicken Scampi, or a Mexican recipe she earmarked in a magazine.
Felicia Buck and her cinnamon rolls.
Importance of the Homemade Meal
Felicia helps do the bookwork for the farm (insurance, taxes), and makes sure everyone is fed. “We sit down at the supper table every night, all five of us in our family,” she said. “We don’t have the TV on, and have the most fun sitting at the table talking.” On occasion she admitted they’ll order pizzas, but she really likes cooking for loved ones. It is how she and her husband were raised and how she hopes her daughters will raise their families.
Year-round her husband and his brothers go home for a hot lunch, but during harvest and planting Felicia gets up every morning at 5:30 a.m. and packs coolers with homemade lunches. Each family member working the harvest is sent out the door with homemade iced tea or apple cider, fruit, a sandwich (often made from a home cooked ham or chicken), chips or cut veggies, crackers or nuts, a little candy, and a frozen bottle of water (because it keeps the lunches cool and is cold at lunch).
Snack Time During Harvest
Felicia makes a different homemade treat and serves it warm at the family’s nearby potato house at least one coffee break every single day of harvest season. “I try to cook to make them happy,” she said. “The crew loves to see me come, because I’m like their break and they know here’s something coming to eat.”
The crew makes requests for the snack, but Felicia never tells them what they are getting – after all the surprise is part of the fun. Frequent requests include apple streusel cake, carrot cake (made with carrots from her garden), Texas sheet cake, bread sticks with cheese, raspberry turnovers, and her famous doughnuts (raised and glazed hot out of the lard).
Technology has changed so the harvest crew at Buck Farms does not have to work the long hours of days past, but one might reckon those long days might just be worth it if that meant a second coffee break with Felicia Buck’s homemade edibles.
Break time at Buck Farms potato house.
Homemade cinnamon rolls for the Buck Farms crew.
Felicia Buck’s Cinnamon Rolls
1 Tablespoon (not rounded) active dry yeast
2 cups fairly warm water (not to hot but not just warm)
Put yeast in large bowl, add water and dissolve yeast.
Add 5 Tablespoons white sugar, 1 Tablespoon salt (not rounded),
And 2 Tablespoon vegetable oil (I use safflower oil)
Stir until all ingredients are mostly dissolved.
Add White flour (I use Robin Hood). I don’t measure but I would say that it will be about 5 cups. Add 1 cup at a time and mix (I use my hands when it gets to a stiff batter) You don’t want it to be too stiff but you also don’t want it to be too sticky. Cover top of bowl with Saran Wrap and a towel and let raise for about 1 -1 ½ hours. It will double in size.
Roll out on a floured surface so that it is ½ inch think.
Melt ½ cup margarine or butter and spread on top of rolled out dough.
In small bowl mix 2 cups white sugar and 1 ½ - 2 Tablespoons of cinnamon. Spread sugar cinnamon mixture on top of buttered dough. Roll up dough (so it makes like a jelly roll) and cut into 1 inch thick slices. Put rolls into a well buttered 9x13 inch pan.
Cook in preheated 35o degree oven for 42 – 45 minutes.
To make glaze to go on top mix ½ cup butter or margarine and 1 – 2 cups confectionary sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla and 1 – 2 Tablespoons milk. Spread over top of hot rolls and serve.
Felicia Buck’s Chicken Casserole
3 cups cooked chicken cut in bite size pieces. (I use boneless chicken breasts and boil them until they are cooked thru and cut them up.)
3 cups stuffing (you can use homemade or stove top stuffing any flavor prepared as directions say)
2 cups canned green beans (thawed peas & carrots work also)
2 cups chicken gravy (I use homemade, but the store bought is fine)
4 cups mashed potatoes
Peal 6 medium potatoes, put in pot, add enough water to fill 1/3 – ½ of pot, bring to a boil. Boil for 15 -20 minutes or until done. Drain out water. Beat potatoes with a beater, add ¼ cup butter or margarine and ½ cup half and half cream or milk.
Spray a 9 x 13 inch pan with cooking spray. Spread the layer of stuffing. Top with chicken, then beans and gravy. Spread mashed potatoes over top. Bake in preheated oven at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes.
***Can be made ahead of time and refrigerated just add 10 – 15 minutes to the cooking time.Tweet
Sharon Kitchens is a neo-homesteader learning the ins and outs of country living by luck and pluck and a lot of expert advice. She writes about bees for The Huffington Post and stuff she loves on her personal blog, deliciousmusings.com.
When she is not writing, she enjoys edible gardening, reading books on food and/or thinking about food, hanging out by her beehives and patiently tracking down her chickens in the woods behind her old farmhouse.
In her blog, Sharon profiles farm families, reports on farm-based education and internships, conducts Q&A's with master beekeepers, offers tips on picking a CSA, and much more.