I can remember when I was a kid growing up that we had to pick potatoes every fall. It was a miserable job that didn’t pay very well. We thought it was great money back then though. I’ll never forget the year most farmers started paying fifty cents a barrel. Now, mind you, a barrel of potatoes held about two hundred fifty pounds or so. More if you put rocks in it, less if you put the stalks in. neither of which you were supposed to do.
It was a great way to get out of school for a few weeks though. We’d start school in September and go for a couple of weeks or so. Then we would have four weeks off for the harvest. It used to be five weeks, but as time went on, and more farmers bought harvesters it had shrunk to four. After I got older and moved on the season shrunk down to three weeks. But it was a miserable way to make a few bucks.
The days were long and hard, so we were usually pretty glad when it rained too hard and we would get off early. But the day was still pretty long. We had to be up out of bed before five AM so we could listen to the Harvest Report on the local TV station. That was a pretty interesting show. We’d be entertained by the tune ‘Tater Raisin’ Man’ or something like that; I don’t recall the name of it any more. Had to do with raising potatoes at any rate.
The show listed all the news that pertained to the harvest, like weather reports and so on. More importantly the show relayed messages from the farmers about the daily work. They would report who was hiring, who was going to start late or not at all. That was the most important part of the show. It would suck pretty bad to get everything ready and be at the corner to be picked up, only to realize after an hour of standing in the rain the truck wasn’t coming.
The farmer would pick us up around six o’clock or so. Sometimes earlier, depending on how many workers they had to pick up. They usually used an old pickup truck with a handmade cap made out of plywood. I can remember there being as many as twelve to fifteen people being crammed into the back. If the news could get a hold of that today the farmer would get sued for the way he treated his employees today.
The trucks had the special mixture of old dirt and sweaty workers odor. I don’t believe that could be scientifically recreated today. The driver would haul us out to the field being dug and leave us there with our lunches and clothing. You always had to bring extra clothing. Never knew what the day’s weather would bring. I can remember waking up to a snowstorm, waiting for the pickup truck while getting drenched and having a clear blue sky and eighty degrees temperature by mid afternoon. All on the same day.
It was always cold in the morning and hot in the afternoon. We could be wearing two sweatshirts, long johns and a jacket in the morning, and be in a t-shirt at lunch time. It wasn’t like that every day, but it happened quite often.
The foreman was the guy in charge of the crew, and usually one of the farmer’s families. He would walk off sections and put up a little plastic flag on a wire to separate them. The sections were different sizes and were given to the people the boss thought could handle them. If you couldn’t keep up you got a smaller section, and you got a bigger one if you got ahead.
The tractor pulled a machine we called a digger. It was a simple affair that had steel plates on the front that would be lowered into the ground to dig up the earth. It would scrape the earth just a few inches below the furrows and push the dirt, rocks and potatoes, and anything else in its path onto a conveyor made of steel rods. Some oval shaped cams would cause the belt to shake up and down as it ran around its pulleys.
The dirt and smaller rocks would fall through the belt, and the larger potatoes rocks and lighter tops and weeds would be deposited on top of the ground at the rear of the digger. We just had to pick up the potatoes and put them in the barrels.
The barrels would get dropped off every few feet into the rows that were just dug, by the guys working the truck. This was an old farm beater truck with a flat bed on it. There were stakes in pockets around the bed, and a chain was strung through them to hold the barrels in place.
When we were hired by the farmer we each got a stack of numbered tickets to put on the barrels when they were full. As the truck came back down the row the guy on back would pick them up with the hoist. This was a neat little rig that ran off the trucks PTO. That is a power take off. This was a device used to power equipment from the trucks motor. It was an incredibly simple device and I don’t believe there was anything else that could do the job better.
There were two half hoops hinged together with a rod. The rod was connected to a chain attached to the boom of the hoist. The device was simply thrown over the barrel. When the boom was lifted, the rod would lift and the two half hoops would try to hang straight. Since the barrel was in the way, they couldn’t, and as the chain lifted the bar the hoops would clamp onto the barrel and lift it up to the height of the trucks bed. The boom was simply swung over the bed, lowered and the clamp would release from the barrel. If you think about it, it was pretty cool because the truck never stopped. It would be driven down the rows at a constant rate of speed a there was never a barrel missed.
Sometimes there would be a Micmac family that would get a really huge section, sometimes as much as a quarter of the field. People would complain, but they really did deserve it. They worked harder than us kids would. I didn’t know it until later on but for some of them, that was their entire income for the whole year. One year there was a woman the next section down from them that got caught stealing barrels from them.
That was something you always had to watch for. We were given numbered cards to put on the barrels so you could get credit for them. There were spaces between the top hoop and the staves of the barrel, and you’d stick one of your tickets there. When the barrel got picked up, the guy running the hoist would put them in a box. At the end of the day the farmer would separate the numbers and count the tickets to see how any barrels you picked that day.
At the end of the week, which was always Friday, we’d hang around the barn while the farmer, or his wife, added everything up and wrote out a check for you. Some farmers actually gave cash in little pay envelopes. The woman that was stealing barrels would switch one of her tickets with theirs on the barrel closet to her section when no one was looking. One of the truck drivers caught on and she got fired on the spot. Back then that was what you did. There wasn’t any of the crap associated with getting terminated like there is today. Employers were not concerned with getting sued, because workers didn’t sue when they got fired. They went out and got another job.
That was pickin’. Hated every day of it. I can remember those days well. The cool morning air under a sky clear as spring water and a perfect turquoise blue. The pungent odor of the earth being turned and the wisps of steam drifting from it as the frozen soil warmed in the sun. The creaking of the hoist as the barrels was lifted onto the truck. Then there was the constant chinka-chinka-chinka from the digger echoing of the distant woods. Every now and then a deer would poke their heads out of the trees, only to jump back into hiding.
Slogging through mud in the rain, broiling in the afternoon sun. Ice cold cokes in glass bottles the drivers would pick up for you on the way back from the potato house. Sharing a smoke with a friend, and eating raw potatoes. Getting sick ‘because you ate them. Football or baseball during lunch. Hoping the digger would break down so you could get caught up and take a break. Bone tired and sore after getting home in the dark. Measly paychecks you couldn’t wait to get on Friday. Cashing them on Saturday and spending it all on stuff you didn’t need. Yep, hated every day of it. Wish I could do it again. Well, maybe just for a day or two. But that’s it.
‘Tater Pickin’ is a story of bygone days in Maine. One of the projects we are working on here at Remember ME! Media is a book called Salt & Pines. It will be an anthology of stories from across the state by many Maine writers. Check out the project at: http://saltandpinesproject.blogspot.com/ for more information and to keep tabs on it’s progress. We’re hoping to be able to have it out for sale well before the end of October of this year.
We’re looking for writers to contribute to this project, as we intend to issue at least one anthology per year, and hopefully more if the interest is their. It’ll be a great way to spread the heritage of the Pine Tree State around, especially if you’re thinking of gift giving.