NEW SWEDEN – Nothing says “The County” like potato harvest.
Thanks to a local farmer, three foreign exchange students at Caribou High School had a chance to experience the harvest in a way many County youths never have.
“It’s hard, and not so easy on your back,” Octavia Panzeri, said. “I’m not used to this weather and it’s a little bit cold, but it’s fun, too.”
The 16-year-old from Milan, Italy, had spent three days picking potatoes at Finn’s Organic Farm along with fellow exchange students Franze Zehentner, 17, of Villach, Austria, and Kathrine Just, 16, of Laasby, Denmark.
At Finn’s there were no mechanical harvesters in sight, just rows and rows of barrels and baskets and a dozen or so teenagers.
That’s because the farm, owned by Carl and Kristine Bondeson, is one of the very few handpicking operations left in Aroostook County.
A tractor pulls a mechanized two-row potato digger, and a large truck is used to haul barrels. Other than that, the harvest runs on sweat and is fueled by a steady stream of baked goods coming from Kristine’s kitchen.
“It’s hard work, it really is,” Zehentner said, warming up during a break Monday morning. “I did this for fun and for the experience, so I can tell people when I go home that I picked potatoes.”
For a time on Monday, the trio was inadvertently freelancing. One of the only other handpicking operations is located across the road from the Bondesons’, and the exchange students were dropped off there by mistake.
For three hours, though they didn’t know it, they picked for Clayton Patrick.
“I heard that they were there,” Patrick said later that day. “I think that’s wonderful. It’s hard to get pickers,” he added with a laugh.
By 11 a.m., however, they were back on Finn’s fields.
“I was very interested to try this,” Just said. “I’ve not experienced anything like this before [and] I wanted to try and get a feel for what it is like.”
Panzeri agreed, adding it gave her the opportunity to experience something very different from what she is used to.
“Here there is so much green and trees,” she said. “I am from a city and it is all palaces and buildings. I really like it here.”
Just and Panzeri are staying with Justice Allen Hunter and Jane Hunter for the year, while Zehentner’s host is the Roy Alden family.
“It’s very social,” Just said. “But hard, too. I think everyone should try it so they can have an idea of what it was like in the old days.”
Wearing borrowed work clothes and extra layers, all three rolled up their sleeves and got their hands dirty filling baskets with potatoes that then were dumped into barrels placed around the field.
Zehentner was not a complete stranger to the world of potato farming, saying a good friend of his in Austria grows potatoes, using mechanical harvesters.
“I’ve never worked the harvest there,” Zehentner was quick to add.
Workers traditionally are paid $1 a barrel during the harvest, but since the exchange students are not allowed to work for pay in this country, they accepted the thanks of the Bondesons as payment enough.
“It’s good to have them here,” 15-year-old Finn Bondeson said during his lunch break Monday. “It’s different and it gives them an idea of our local culture and something that’s not practiced so much anymore.”
Gone are the days when handpickers logged 100 barrels or more. According to Finn Bondeson, these days “20 barrels is a really good day.”
Riding herd on the workers was Art Jones of Woodland, himself a newcomer to the harvest, having recently moved into the area.
“I’m the kid wrangler,” he joked, as he walked the just-picked rows gathering the potatoes left behind. “The kids are great [and] this teaches them a lot about integrity, what it means to work, and it shows them where their food comes from.”
Jones paused and looked over to the group bunched around his pickup eating lunch. “They work good, they eat good, and they sleep good.”
Ambling back to the truck, Jones asked the crew, “You guys done eating yet?” and was met by a long chorus of “No!”
Soon Jones was back on the tractor, the digger uncovering rows two-by-two ready for picking.
Waiting at her barrel for the digger to come her way was Lili Sund, 15, also a Caribou High student who grew up working on a farm.
“I don’t mind it,” Sund said. “I appreciate hard work and I expect to work hard here.”
Sund was pleased three visitors to the area wanted to get involved.
“It gives them a little more of an idea what we do there,” she said. “And it’s fun for us to get to know them.”
By early afternoon, Just, Panzeri and Zehentner were ready to clock out, and on cue Allen Hunter pulled up at the side of the field to pick them up.
“I think this is fantastic,” Hunter said, as he took a moment to watch the harvest. “They are coming to this part of the world for the experience, and if you are in Aroostook County, picking potatoes is the quintessential experience.”
Dressed more for working on the judicial bench than in the field, Hunter laughingly declined the offer to join the crew. He pointed out Just was wearing his “all-purpose Bean boots.”
Back in the field, Sund was ready to work and well aware of the connection to local culture the harvest provides.
“Art keeps telling us we’re making history,” she said.
BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO BY KEVIN BENNETT
A numbered paper ticket identifies the picker of a barrel of potatoes. One dollar a barrel is the wage earned by most handpickers. Three exchange students in the fields are not allowed to collect pay so they volunteer for the fun and experience of picking potatoes in Aroostook County.
BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO BY KEVIN BENNETT
Mechanical potato harvesters do not exist in the fields of Finn’s Organic Farm in New Sweden. A tractor, truck and lots of hands do the potato harvesting.