September 19, 2019

Life lessons learned in the potato field

Occasionally, as the person in a leadership position, I am asked to explain what influenced my development the most. While I can point to people and life experiences, the one activity that always comes to mind is the annual potato harvest, and the leadership lessons I learned as a child in the fall fields of Aroostook County.

On Friday last week, I traveled to The County, which is in the middle of potato harvest – an experience that has changed dramatically with the advent of the mechanized harvester. It is always a sentimental journey for me, particularly so on an ideal potato harvest day when the fall skies are sunny and bright blue, touching eternity.

The smells, sights and beauty of Aroostook County are a great memory stimulant. The light smell of potato dust in the air conjures memories of a time when harvesting was a process of manually picking potatoes, dropping them in baskets, pouring the baskets into barrels, placing an identifying ticket on the rim of the barrel when it was full, setting up another barrel, picking, emptying basket after basket. While traveling up Route 11 on such a day, reminiscing on experiences of youth becomes a preoccupation.

School always began in mid-August, and in some towns that is still the case. Beginning the school year early allowed the schools to close for three to four weeks during the potato harvest. For some, the harvest break was a waste, the loss of valuable learning time. In some cases, the atmosphere of the classroom extended to the potato field because even some of our teachers joined us in the outdoor work. For others, including my family, it was a matter of financial survival for the winter.

Every fall we had the opportunity to earn money for winter clothing by picking potatoes. The potato field was a great teacher. If you have never picked potatoes, or worked on any kind of harvest, it is hard to imagine that a potato field would be a great teacher. But it is. The lessons carry through a lifetime because they involve persistence, perseverance, and hard work. I learned family is important, and that one can find “nonbiological” family.

As potato pickers, we worked for a farmer whose family depended on the results of a good harvest. In all likelihood, he knew our parents and families well. He counted on us to be in the fields every day, to pick with consistency, to work together, and to give a little extra push if the weather was turning bad. We learned a great deal about being an active team member. The farmer would operate the digger so he could keep an eye on the entire operation of the field. He became close to family for us. And we never wanted to let him down.

Each moment of the workday was important. We got up at 4 a.m. to be ready for the truck, which loaded the pickers at 5. We were in bed by 8 p.m. or earlier. Getting up in the morning still was difficult, although getting dressed was easy because we wore the same clothes day after day. Potato picking fashion consisted of layers of loose-fitting old clothing and rubber kneepads covered with dust and dirt from the field. Rich or poor, we all looked alike.

Lunchtime was a coveted part of the day. Romances blossomed in the field, so we learned about the facts of life as we talked over lunch. And we learned that we couldn’t be fussy about the food we ate because we were so famished by the time lunch rolled around that anything and everything tasted good. We accepted the fact that a little dirt on our food would not hurt us.

We also learned that there are people who let their jobs go to their heads, like the guys who hoisted barrels onto the backs of the potato trucks. They often felt they were a couple of levels above the pickers, yet a well aimed potato could bring them back to reality pretty quickly. If the aim was too good, we learned that people can be vengeful – no barrels to dump potatoes into, a basket flattened by the tires of a truck. And, we risked the anger of the farmer, our boss, our friend. It was important to pick fights carefully and sometimes, we learned, it’s wiser not to give in to impulses. Better, to think things through.

Little boy and girl potato pickers dreamed of driving the truck, hoisting the barrels or running the digger – an equal opportunity kind of dream. That work seemed so much easier than trying to keep up with the digger turning up rows and rows of potatoes.

At the end of the day, when we walked together to the truck that would carry us home, we talked about the success of the day. It always seemed that the best days were the ones we worked hard and helped each other out. And, the best moments were when an experienced picker – the “100-barrel-a-day kind” – praised us for our 40- or 50-barrel days. These were the days when productivity was high, when we felt like a family.

Last week, as I traveled through Aroostook County, I was reminded by a mechanical harvester that things are no longer the same. I wonder about the life lessons to be learned from riding a vibrating, noisy piece of steel; and I mourn the loss of the family farm, and the farm family.

Joyce Hedlund, a native of Fort Kent, is president of Eastern Maine Community College.

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