Cassandra Colton, 15. of Presque Isle is hard at work picking potatoes at Flewelling Farms in Easton shortly after dawn. Harvest break is being reevaluated as more Aroostook County farms use mechanical pickers and fewer students turn out to hand pick. Fred Field/Staff Photographer

The morning fog is still clinging to the low spots in Aroostook County’s rolling fields when Cassandra Colton, 15, starts her 10-hour day.

She’s bent at the waist, her tennis shoes planted firmly in a muddy potato field. Her small hands, nestled awkwardly in black work gloves, are flying as she picks up potato as fast as she can and tosses them into an ash basket.

Colton, a teen through and through, loves makeup and is most at home with her brown hair in curlers, not pulled back from her dirt-daubed face as it is now. Laughter frequently tumbles out of her, and she says “oh my God” a lot.

She was once first runner-up for Junior Miss Presque Isle, she explains. She is into modeling and shopping and boys, “and not potatoes.”

“This is, like, the opposite of Cassie,” she said. “I’m usually out dancing or at the mall or something like that. I’m a pageant girl. I’m into being all pretty and stuff, and this is not pretty.”

So what is this budding beauty queen doing in Gaylen Flewelling’s potato field at 7 on a Monday morning, picking up spuds until her hands hurt?


Colton, a 10th-grader at Presque Isle High School, is one of just a handful of Aroostook County kids who are spending their three-week harvest break from school taking part in a waning aspect of their local culture. They’re picking potatoes to earn a little cash and make their parents – many of whom did the same thing when they were kids – proud.

Colton, who earned $90 in four days last week, is saving for a class ring, a driver’s education class and a shopping spree. But she is also doing this for her father, “to show my dad that I could get out there and actually work,” she said.

“It really makes you feel good, after you’ve done a field, ’cause you look at it and you say, `Oh my God, I picked that whole entire field,’ ” she said.

School systems in Presque Isle, Caribou, Easton, Mars Hill, Houlton, Bridgewater and Fort Fairfield start classes early each year so that they can break in late September and students as young as 12 can head to the potato fields. It’s a longtime tradition that gives farming communities a ready supply of young workers at harvest time.

But a part of that tradition is dying.

While older kids still hunger for $6.50-an-hour work on a mechanical harvester or in a potato house, the good economy of the past few years has dampened the enthusiasm of 12- to 15-year-olds for working at a job that pays 60 cents a barrel. With two-income families the norm these days, it’s easier just to hit up mom and dad for mall money.


Only three farms hiring

For farmers who can get their crops in faster and cheaper with machinery, it isn’t worth trying to find kids willing to do the hard work of harvesting by hand. Out of 400 farming units in Aroostook County, only three hired local schoolchildren to pick potatoes this year, according to Gaylen Flewelling, chair of the Easton School Board and a farmer who plants 650 acres of potatoes every year.

Flewelling, 62, and his wife, Joan, 57, once had a waiting list of two years for potato-picker jobs during the school harvest break, and parents begged them to take on their children. This year they found just 19 kids to hire.

They say they almost certainly will not do it again next year.

“We’ve been doing it here because we wanted to give the grade school kids (from Easton) a chance to work, since they can’t work on the harvester,” he said. “But only seven of them wanted to work, so. . . .”

Parents who learned the value of a dollar in the potato fields are mourning the passing of part of their childhoods, a part they had hoped to share with their own kids. Working in the fields, they learned how to get to work on time, how to finish what they start, and how to manage a budget.


“He’s got to have this experience at least once,” said Tammy White of Easton, whose 12-year-old son Kyle is working for Flewelling this year. “It’s life lessons. Things you can’t learn in the classroom.”

By 7 a.m. the kids are spread across an eight-acre field off Route 1A, their bluejean-clad bodies contorted into positions where they can’t see the glorious curtain of morning clouds stretching across the sky. Except for moments when they lapse into being kids – moments that become more frequent as the day progresses – they keep their eyes focused on their work. The air is filled with the pungent aroma of earth, a smell that triggers memories of both mud pies and final goodbyes.

The kids clear away potato tops that cover the ground like the remaining tufts of hair sprouting from a balding man’s head. It takes about two minutes to fill their ash baskets with the potatoes that the mechanical digger has churned up. Then they dump their loads into a nearby cedar barrel that can hold 165 to 185 pounds of potatoes, or about five baskets’ worth. When the barrel is full, they place a numbered yellow ticket in it and a Canadian crew on a flatbed truck drives by, throws grappling hooks around the barrel and winches it onto the truck. At the end of the day, Joan Flewelling counts the yellow tickets so she knows how many barrels each youngster has filled and how much to pay him or her.

Potatoes for McDonald’s

Flewelling estimates that this field will yield 700 to 800 barrels of shepody potatoes, a variety that is used for McDonald’s french fries, the mother’s milk of American teen-agers. The irony that they could very well use part of their paychecks one day to buy back a potato they picked is lost on these kids, however. Growing up in potato country, they are used to eating potato in all its forms – french fried, mashed and otherwise – at least three or four times a week.

But looking to the day ahead, the sheer volume of what faces them in the field can be overwhelming.


Cassie Colton, yellow ticket No. 64, is dreaming of the day she’ll be picking russets because they are bigger and fill the barrels a smidgen faster.

“Geezum, I never even want to look at a potato again,” she said. “I mean, they’re good and stuff like that, but the numbers scare me.”

Colton and her friend Shannon Marquis, 15, are known in the field as the ones who don’t like to get dirty. But working here means staying in the shower at the end of the day until all the hot water is gone.

“I stood in the shower for, like, an hour, and I got out and I was rubbing my arm with the towel and the dirt was still coming off,” Marquis said.

Mary Burch, the field boss, comes by and holds out a plastic bag filled with suckers, Sweet Tarts and other small pieces of candy.

“Sweetie, do you want some inspiration?” she asks Cassie.


Burch’s car trunk is filled with everything from sweatshirts to toilet paper, even baby wipes to wash dirty faces. She makes sure the kids aren’t overworked, but also tries to keep them from socializing their day away.

“It’s a field boss’s duty to encourage and crack the whip,” she said, laughing.

If a kid gets too tired or just doesn’t seem to want to be there that day, Burch shortens his section or sends someone to help him out. But she doesn’t see many slackers.

“The kids that are out here like the idea of the money, and they’re out here to work,” she said. “They may not enjoy it. Who wants to be standing out in the middle of a potato field at 6:30 in the morning?”

Sometimes little romances start to form in the field, and Burch has to nip them before they get out of control. This isn’t summer camp, so kids who spend a little too much time talking to each other are separated.

“I told Adam, `You can stay by Kari as long as you pick,’ ” she said, teasing the lanky 14-year-old boy with braces who works next to Kari, a 13-year-old from Easton Junior-Senior High who picks for clothes and Christmas money.


“I think you’re seeing things,” replied Adam Brown, a freshman at Presque Isle High School who smiles a lot.

Adam, wearing a green Adidas T-shirt and white baseball cap, says the job is “not too awful, I guess.”

Normally during harvest break, Adam would be doing things like playing “Tomb Raider” and “Need for Speed” on his computer. But three weeks ago, he crashed his dirt bike and now there are $300 worth of repairs waiting. So far he’s made $130.

“My parents want me to put some in a savings account, but I’ll try to resist,” he said, grinning.

The meaning of 60 cents

While his friends sleep until noon, Adam rises at 5:15 each morning. As if a 10-hour day in the field weren’t enough, he rides his bike 3 1/2 miles from home to the Easton Thriftway each morning, where Joan Flewelling picks him up. At the end of the day, legs tired and back sore, he pedals home again.


Adam says his time in the field has given him a greater appreciation for the value of a dollar. It’s hard for him to spend 60 cents on a soda now because he earns 60 cents a barrel, and he knows how many potatoes that represents.

“If it was my parents’ money, I wouldn’t care,” he said.

Joan Flewelling is sometimes warned in advance about kids who could be troublemakers, but she finds that about half of them turn out to be good workers because the job gives them a way to channel their energy.

She likes hiring girls because they seem to be more coordinated.

“The boys are more apt to stop and watch the tractor, and they’ll stop and watch the barrels get picked up,” she said.

Flewelling has never fired a kid, but she once refused to rehire a boy the year after he broke one of her rules.


The rules of the field are:

Don’t throw potatoes.

Don’t share water.

If you hear a truck beeping as it backs up, turn around and look.

In Flewelling’s potato-picking days, throwing potatoes at each other was a common diversion. Kids also used to stack barrels three and four high, then climb on top – a trick that’s now outlawed, even though Flewelling remembers that “it’s really fun.”

During the 11 a.m. lunch break, Flewelling still allows some play because her workers are, after all, kids. They lay empty barrels on their sides and stand on top of them, turning them underneath their feet like log rollers.


After lunch, the kids start flagging a bit. Around 2 p.m., Joan Flewelling typically makes the rounds passing out water or sodas. Midafternoon, parents start showing up to help their kids down the home stretch to their 5 o’clock quitting time.

Matt Steele, a 14-year-old from Easton, is getting help from his mother, Donna. He made $164 last week, which he’s thinking of spending on a new stereo system because the one he bought last year with his potato money is “not quite loud enough.”

“He’s spent it (in his head) a dozen times,” Donna Steele said. “One day he’s bought something for his room, the next day he’s fixing up his snowmobile. But he’s worked hard for his money. We’re proud of him.

Working for a new bike

With just a couple of hours left to go, the kids start trying to guess how many barrels they’ve picked. A good picker can harvest 110 to 125 barrels in a day, but the Flewellings are happy if a 12-year-old can do 30.

Kyle White, a 12-year-old from Easton, boasts that he’s done more than 25 so far.


Kyle is a blond boy in a bright yellow T-shirt and blue jeans who, if comic strip characters were real, could be mistaken for Dennis the Menace. Noshing on a lime green sucker from the inspiration bag, he explains that he is working ” ’cause I need a new bike.”

As he talks, he is clearly unaware that there’s a huge smudge of dirt on his nose and upper lip. Dirt cakes the bill of his University of Maine hockey cap. His knees are filthy.

“It’s not really hard,” he says bravely. “Being bent over all day, your back starts to hurt. That’s the only thing.”

Last week, he made $122 “with a lot of help,” looking over gratefully at his mom, Tammy White, who picked potatoes when she was a kid for grocery money. “She’s been out here every day. Dad came out a couple of times, too.”

Kyle figures he’ll have to pick 245 barrels to have enough money for his bike, but first he has to earn enough to buy new school clothes.

“Because he has a mean mother,” Tammy White interjects, smiling.

She has gotten a big kick out of watching her son come home and flop on the couch after a long day of work, saying, “Now I know what you mean, Mom. This is tough.” The boy who never gave much thought to where Christmas presents or new bikes come from now spends his evenings with a calculator, figuring his earnings.

“They’re making memories that are going to last a lifetime,” she said. “Some of your best friends come out of the potato field.”

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