For generations, high school students in northern Maine have taken a three-week break from classes every fall to harvest potatoes. But the acreage has shrunk over the past 50 years, and technology has reduced the demand for labor, which means far fewer teenagers are working in the fields of Aroostook County.
In the town of Presque Isle, the school board is looking at a new approach that could end the tradition of the October break and bring the harvest into the classroom.
Farmer Brent Buck walks through a sea of potatoes inside a large storage facility in Mapleton, a few miles outside of Presque Isle. The team at Buck’s family farm harvests close to 300 acres of potatoes over three weeks every October and stores them all here.
For decades, workers during the harvest have included high schoolers. As many as 20 local teenagers sorted through rocks, drove trucks and transported potatoes from the fields during their “harvest break,” a three-week break for high schoolers that’s largely unique to Aroostook County.
It’s a tough job, but Buck says it teaches students the value of hard work in ways that they can’t learn in a classroom.
“I’ve had a lot of kids tell me the first week they would never do this again,” he says. “But almost always, come the third week, when harvest winds down, they always come over and will mention, ‘I’d like to be on the list for next year. I’d like a job again.’“
But with changing demographics and a smaller harvest, Buck now only employs three or four students a year.
“So it’s transitioned,” he says. “We’ve brought more equipment to do some of the jobs. Because we’ve determined that in some aspects, it’s harder to find kids that want to work.”
And as fewer students take part in the harvest, many schools are now reassessing the value of the break. The topic was front-and-center earlier this week at a school board workshop for SAD 1, the school district for the Presque Isle area.
The workshop was designed as a sort of public debate — five community members spoke in support of the break and five against.
The small conference room at the high school was packed with parents and community members. Local farmers were out in full force. Among them was Kimberly Hemphill, who praised the harvest break and what it taught kids.
“Self discipline, responsibility, being punctual are just a few traits learned through working harvest,” Hemphill says.
And potato grower Cole Staples says he believes it’s a tradition that must be preserved.
“To take that unique opportunity from these kids, I just can’t imagine taking something like that away,” he says.
But educators and community members said the school board needed to face the changing times. According to a survey from the school district, only about 15 percent of Presque Isle High School students contributed to harvest work during last year’s break.
And local officials say that the harvest break actually affects students in negative ways. The school year starts in early August, one local recreation official pointed out, so many students miss out on up to two weeks of summer programming. And one teacher said that it takes a lot of time to get students back on track after three weeks off.
Presque Isle parent Frank Bemis says it’s hard to figure out what to do with his children during harvest break.
“We find it to be a struggle to manage kids on these off-kilter schedules,” he says. “We do some latch-key stuff. We leave the youngest home. I’ve talked to other parents with issues. An older kid in high school might be helping out, and you leave the younger kid home.”
Those issues have prompted other Aroostook towns to end harvest break. In recent years, the towns of Houlton and Hodgdon eliminated their breaks, though the schools say they still accommodate students who want to work during the harvest.
In Presque Isle, however, it appears that the board may be looking at a different educational model that would incorporate harvest work into the school curriculum.
One parent proposed that the district design a co-operative program that would let students get school credit for their work on the farm. Superintendent Brian Carpenter is developing a version of that plan right now to present to the board in February.
Meanwhile, back at his farm in Mapleton, Buck says he knows that times do change. But he says he still doesn’t want to see the tradition and hard work of harvest break go away.
“So it’s a changed environment. Where it ends up, I don’t know. I have a nephew and two nieces that are in elementary, middle school. My hope is that that same opportunity to be a part of something is there for them,” he says.
SAD 1’s school board will decide that question over the next few months.
Education reporting on Maine Public Radio is supported by a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.
This story was originally published Jan. 11, 2018 at 5:30 p.m. ET.