Not that long ago, many teenagers in Aroostook County bought their winter clothes and other things they wanted with money earned working on farms during the fall potato harvest.
A lot of students still do work during the harvest breaks, although many are just as likely to work in other jobs as they are on farms. Declining participation, along with falling school enrollment, has left districts reconsidering the harvest tradition as they look for potential budget savings. The districts serving greater Houlton and Hodgdon ended their breaks in 2012, though school officials still allow students to take time off if they make up the curriculum.
In the hub of Aroostook, School Administrative District 1’s board of directors will vote early next year on whether to keep, change or end Presque Isle High School’s three week harvest break. SAD 1 administrators have estimated that ending the break would save about $53,000, mostly through efficiencies in the bus fleet, which still runs for elementary and middle school students.
Superintendent Brian Carpenter told SAD 1 board members at a Dec. 9 meeting that there are a number of options they should consider after hearing from farmers, families and other residents at a public meeting tentatively scheduled for Jan. 27. Carpenter mentioned three possible options that could be adopted, including reducing the harvest break to two weeks and extending it to all grades, which would also save in busing costs. He also noted that the district would allow students to take time off to work in harvest jobs as long as they make up school lessons, as they can already do for an extra week.
Whether or not to continue the tradition is a perennial decision before school boards in The County. The time off can create challenges for parents’ work schedules if they have younger children, while some families also plan fall vacations.
This past fall, 52 percent of Presque Isle high school students did not work at all during the three-week break. About 13 percent worked in harvest positions at area farms and 35 percent held other jobs, according to the school’s survey. Of the 35 percent, the district estimates that about 10 percent did work at the SAD 1 School Farm, home to one of Aroostook County’s largest apple orchards.
Although potato farming is largely mechanized, no longer requiring small armies of youth laborers, farmers do rely on seasonal workers to help in tasks ranging from rock picking and soil sampling to storing potatoes and driving trucks. This year, 38 Presque Isle high schoolers worked in potato houses, 17 worked on mechanical harvesters, 9 worked as hand pickers, three worked as truck drivers, two worked as soil samplers, one worked as a barrel loader and one worked as a wind rower.
“There’s still a need,” said Mapleton farmer and SAD 1 school board member Brent Buck, who usually hires between 10 and 20 students from Presque Isle High School every fall.
At SAD 42, the district of Mars Hill, Blaine and Bridgewater, the tradition is holding on with 35 percent of seventh- through 12th-graders working in harvest-related positions during the district-wide three week break.
“If all of us students decided to not go to work, the potatoes wouldn’t be dug,” said sophomore Isabelle Wright, whose grandfather and uncle own a 1,600-acre farm and co-own the company making Fox Family Potato Chips. “The paychecks also help with the motivation when you really don’t want to get up.”
Students working the three weeks can earn about $2,000, and Wright noted that cousins and peers have used the money to buy a car or save for college.
SAD 42’s board of directors recently voted to continue the break next year, in the 2016-17 school year, in part based on wide support from farmers, said SAD 42 Superintendent Elaine Boulier.
“The benefits of harvest break far outweigh the ‘costs,’” Boulier said in an email. “The harvest break is a long-standing tradition in Mars Hill that gives students an opportunity to earn a great deal of money in a short time period. It is a valuable learning experience for students that teaches them work ethic.”