AROOSTOOK COUNTY, Maine — Although lobsters are the symbol of Maine, potatoes are the No. 1 product in our state and the fifth largest in acres planted in the country.
Despite the great technological advances these days, it's also the only reason why many students in Aroostook County get a three to four week break to help farmers have a successful harvest, a tradition that dates back to the mid-1940s.
Aroostook County is the largest county in Maine, and the vast majority of that land is planted with potatoes. The value of last year's potato sales in Maine are not in yet, because not all of that crop has been sold. But potato sales in 2021 were just a little over $200,000,000. That's the highest it has ever been.
A majority of farmers in The County agree the help they receive from students during the harvest break is essential. But recently there has been some back and forth about the need to keep this tradition alive.
"The growers in Maine have made a tremendous commitment to this industry. The potatoes are not cheap to grow. They are a high-input crop," Don Flannery, director of the Maine Potato Board, said.
Potatoes are an investment made by about 200 farms across Maine.
"I think it's why you are continuing to see 5,000-6,000 acre increases on any given year," Flannery said.
According to recently released number by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 52,000 acres were planted last year, with 1.8 billion pounds of quality potatoes harvested. All of those spuds require a lot of helping hands, which is where students come in.
Olivia York, 16, works more than 10 hours a day at Grass Family Farms in Mars Hill during harvest break. She’s the third generation in her family to take part in the tradition, following her parents and grandparents.
"It's important, because it keeps our community running," the teen said.
"She has no idea how valuable that is," Kevin Grass said.
The kids' help is so valuable that without help like hers, Grass said, this farm would not be able to harvest all the potatoes before it gets too cold and they go bad.
The McCrum family farm also in Mars Hill is one of the top growers in the state. Even though the majority of the work surrounding potatoes is done by machines, students do their part, too.
"We are picking rocks out of the potatoes," one of the teens said this past fall.
"I'm running the stinger," one 13-year-old said.
When it comes to harvest break, students have a choice: They can take the weeks off and do nothing, go on vacation, work at a nearby store or with family members, or hit the fields and potato harvesters to work and help harvest Maine's top agriculture product.
According to farmers and superintendents, the kids and students who work in the fields build resilience, discipline, learn about time management, and gain many more values they will carry in life.
"It teaches you how to get up in the morning, go to work, and be responsible for yourself. They don't have a teacher watching them over here," Darrell McCrum, farmer at McCrum Family Farms, said.
"I usually show up here around 7 o'clock, a little earlier than that, then first trucks come in, just back them up and do that almost all day till 7 o'clock, and then go home and go to bed," Collen, a 13-year-old who worked the harvest this past fall, said.
"I feel like I have my own job that I need to take care of. And if I can't do it, then other people can't do their jobs," Millie Couture, a teen working at McCrum, said.
Kevin Grass and his family is an example of a small family farm that relies on help from students during harvest break.
"We harvest 250 acres of processing potatoes. They go to McCain foods, Pineland, and the McCrum plant in Washburn," Grass said.
Besides Russet Burbank, Grass also grows the exclusive Caribou Russet variety.
"We hand-select every single potato, so it's a unique situation," Grass said.
"I think it builds character. It makes you really appreciate things in life and what your parents do for you and how hard they work for you, to provide," York said.
In addition to the experience they gain in the field, the students also earn money.
"Some of these kids, their check for the week is over $1,000. They've never seen that much money, and they do it every week," Grass said.
"It's nice to work with friends and make money and to buy stuff we need or want," a 12-year-old said.
Throughout the years, there has been debate on whether school districts should actually pause school for three or four weeks and continue to give this break.
"With mechanization and just the technology that's in farming today, you need less and less people to do it," Tim Doak said.
Doak is the superintendent at RSU 39 in Aroostook County. He said his district in Caribou will not lose the break because it provides a much-needed hand to farmers and helps students develop work ethic.
"Getting up in the morning and having someone else depend on you, and being part of something that's bigger than yourself i think it's so important educationally and just for your own self good," Doak expressed.
To put things into perspective, the school districts in Aroostook County that participated in the break during mid-September 2022 recorded between 20-30 percent of its students working the fields. Those percentages that have been relatively consistent the past few years.
"How does it make you feel that just 20 percent of the students in your district work hands-on on the field?" reporter Hannah Yechivi asked the superintendent.
"I think it's a missed opportunity, and I think the students that did miss out on it. When you talk to them now, they do regret it," Doak said.
"It's extremely important for our family to try to keep the kids here working, just to teach them those values," McCrum said.
For now, farmers and school officials both agree the life lessons students gain while working in the fields is something they won't see inside classrooms, and at the end of the day they live and breathe in a farming community.
"I always think today we don't have a lot of empathy in our world, and understanding people that you work with was a big thing as a young kid. I used to call it the great equalizer in the potato field, we were all the same, nobody was better than anybody else picking potatoes," Doak, who used to work the potato fields for many years himself during his school time, said.
"A lot of the kids that may not have grown on a family farm may have an interest in something we are doing here," McCrum said. "Farming isn't all hand work like this. Our tractors have GPS now. We are a data-based industry now."
"In the harvest time for that four-week window, there is work, and there is no reason you can't work if you want to work," Doak expressed.
"Wherever they work in the state, they just say, 'I'm from Aroostook County,' and, 'I grew up on a farm,' or 'I worked at a farm.' 'When do you want to start?' They automatically think that those kids are more valuable because they are going to show up, they are going to put in honest day's work, and that's vital," Grass said.