It’s 4:30 in the morning and Taylor Thibodeau of Caribou slowly rises from his slumber. While most are still in bed, Thibodeau grabs breakfast, throws on some old clothes and heads out for a long day in the potato fields. Such as been the annual rite of passage for several generations in Aroostook County.
Mechanization has changed the annual harvest over the years. Rather than picking the seasonal crop by hand, much of the work is done by large harvesters. Such was the case when Caribou boys soccer coach Scott Hunter began working the harvest in the early 1970’s. Hunter was in the first grade when he started heading to the fields in the early morning, picking potatoes all day by hand. He’d be up at five each morning awaiting a pick-up truck to take him to his day’s work. Back then he and a bunch of boys would ride in the back of the truck, obviously this was in the age before seatbelt laws. They’d arrive at the field, ready to pick as the sun was rising over the horizon.
Hunter, a graduate of Caribou High School, recalled harvest break was about 3 1/2 to 4 weeks in length when he attended high school in the 1980’s. As Scott grew older through his high school years, he would be employed to do various school work projects, such as painting, during the shutdown. His father, Dwight Hunter, was the longtime athletic director at Caribou High School.
The current harvest break at Caribou is only two weeks in length and far fewer youth are employed in the fields than in days past. Joining Thibodeau working this year’s harvest are fellow students Dustin Bouchard, Dylan Lamothe, Colby Holdsworth, and Noah Frost. Their stories of long days in the field and the potato house are similar to those of Thibodeau’s. They get up early and either work on the harvester or are in the potato house. Their primary responsibilities are to sort the inedible items from the potatoes.
The main items the harvester picks up that need to be discarded are rocks. The boys also said they’ve found some unusual items on the harvester as well. Dead animals, particularly rabbits, someone’s mangled cell phone, and wallets have also appeared. They also sift through the potatoes in the potato house and discard any which are deemed defective.
Typically the days are twelve hours in length. However, unlike the rest of the workers on the farm, their day is still not over once the sun begins to fade. These boys I mentioned are also members of the Caribou Boys Varsity Soccer team. In earlier generations, such as Coach Hunter’s, everything completely shut down during harvest season. The team might get together for an hour once a week for informal practice. Other than that there were no games, nothing. Not the case, today. To accommodate the harvest, practices are held from 7-9 P.M. each evening. Following practice it’s right to bed for these boys and up early and at it once again the next day.
This past Thursday, the boys working the harvest got a reprieve of sorts when the Vikings headed south to take on the John Bapst Crusaders at The University of Maine field. Coach Hunter makes clear to everyone during the break their commitment to the team. He makes concessions to those working if they are a little bit late or have to miss a practice but expects everyone to be at all the games. The players and Coach Hunter said the employers understand the students’ commitment to the team. Hanging out on a bus for six hours and playing a soccer game was much easier than the arduous work of being on a potato harvester all day.
The Caribou girls team make the trip south to play John Bapst a day earlier at UMaine. According to their coach, Todd Albert, none of the girls on the team work the potato harvest. Some may work odd jobs here and there to make extra money, however. According to Albert, many of the schools in Aroostook County, including Caribou, still keep with the harvest break out of tradition rather than need. Some schools have done away with the harvest break altogether. The boys working the harvest on the Caribou soccer team estimated only about 15-20% of the student body still work the fields.
While it’s hard work, the boys expressed satisfaction at being able to be a part of such an Aroostook County tradition. While many can work upwards of 90 hours a week during harvest, the boys said they put in about 60 hours a week due to the soccer commitment. That being said, they each spoke at great lengths with excitement with the money they were making during the season.
The past two weeks for Taylor Thibodeau, Dustin Bouchard, Dylan Lamothe, Colby Holdsworth, and Noah Frost, life has consisted of potatoes, soccer, and sleep. From the looks of their worn, yet proud faces, I’m not sure they’d have it any other way.