BLAINE, Maine (AP) — In the gentle hills of northern Maine, far from the rocky coastline and lighthouses, teenagers trade warm classrooms for cold potato fields every fall, just as they have for generations.
Schools shut down — sometimes for weeks at a time — while their students haul in the harvest or monitor conveyor belts for potatoes that don't measure up as farmers rush to fill their stores before the ground freezes.
But as farm operations consolidate and heavy machinery make them more efficient, farmers wonder how much longer there will be a place for the harvest breaks that as little as 20 years ago saw kids hand-picking potatoes for 50 cents a barrel.
"Eventually it'll probably fade away," said Wayne Garrison, the 72-year-old co-owner of Garrison Farms, which hired eight high school students to help harvest its 700 acres of potatoes. "I'd hate to see it go, I really would."
Up until the 1940s, Maine was the nation's potato capital and Aroostook County — a place so vast that it's about the same size as the combined states of Connecticut and Rhode Island — is still home to roughly 50,000 acres of potato farms. Nearly a dozen high schools here emptied for this year's harvest — fewer than the old days, when virtually all schools shut down.
This year, only a handful of high schools have closed for the entire three-week harvest. And school boards are continually grappling with whether or not to continue the tradition as modern farming reduces the need for large numbers of laborers.
"All things change," said Don Flannery, executive director of the Maine Potato Board. "Will there be harvest recess 10 years from now in Aroostook County? I'd be surprised."
The harvest is a dirty, noisy mechanized ballet of tractors, trucks and fork lifts. But there's still a need for young farmhands, for now at least.
On a recent day in Mapleton, 16-year-old Nick Powers was operating one of the potato trucks, creeping alongside a harvester that offloads more than 30,000 pounds of potatoes every 15 minutes. "It's not easy work, but it's a good way to make quick money," he said.
Those who work the full three weeks will earn about $2,000 — money some will save for college, a car or hunting gear. They'll also get a lesson in hard work.
"It's a good learning experience," said 16-year-old Malerie Buck, another Presque Isle High School junior and the daughter of one of the farm's owners, who was lined up along a conveyor belt, pulling rocks, plants and bad potatoes as they tumbled by. "You never know what work is until you do something hard."
Brent Buck, who was overseeing his daughter and other teenage workers in Mapleton, said the work is dirty, noisy and scary — full of many moving parts and big equipment. 7/8
"But there's something to be said for the fact that people are earning that first paycheck," said Buck, who along with two brothers owns a farm with 300 acres of seed potatoes. "You see that transition with the first job, the first paycheck, and the first opportunity."
The harvest break was once the norm in agrarian society but has long since been abandoned in most farming communities. One of the few other places with harvest breaks is Idaho, the nation's top potato producer, in small cities like Rexburg, Rigby and Shelley, said Don Odiorne of the Idaho Potato Commission.
To outsiders, it may seem strange that classrooms are empty just weeks after students took their seats. But many educators support the harvest break because it benefits communities and teaches hard work.
"Educationally, you could talk to a hundred different people and you'd get a hundred different opinions on the impact of the harvest break on education," said Roger Shaw, school superintendent in Mars Hill. "I'd argue that kids who work during the potato harvest are exposed to a work ethic that they wouldn't normally get."
The work can be difficult, but also tedious. In Blaine, Shannon Scully and her friends have picked up another crucial life skill as they carefully monitor the spuds that come in from the field — finding the little workplace joys that make the day go a little easier.
"We find potatoes that are shaped like animals," she joked.