LITTLETON, Maine — David Bartlett climbs aboard a large potato harvester machine that’s pulled by a tractor his nephew Cecil Gogan operates. It’s a cool Thursday morning just after sunrise, and the unharvested field stretches out for acres on Foxcroft Road, surrounded by scenic farmland and fall foliage.
Gogan starts the engine, and pulls the harvester while a large truck, capable of carrying up to 150 barrels of potatoes, moves alongside it. The harvester scoops up potatoes from the earth and dumps them into the truck, causing billowing clouds of dirt to fly into the air, the dust particles attaching themselves to every surface and blinding the vision of anyone caught in them.
Such is another day in the potato harvesting season in Aroostook County, where farmers from Fort Kent to Houlton will be unearthing the crop that serves as The County’s signature product. In the coming weeks, potatoes will be sold to commercial suppliers across the country to be turned into things like french fries, potato chips and bags of fresh potatoes for home usage.
The potato harvest is part of the family business for David Bartlett, who runs Bartlett Farms in Littleton, a small town next to Houlton. But it isn’t business as usual this year because Aroostook County is experiencing a drought of historic proportions, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture declaring The County to be a drought disaster area. Rivers have dried up considerably, and potato crops, as with other crops in the area, have suffered due to the lack of water.
The USDA has made Aroostook farmers, as well as those living in adjacent counties, eligible for emergency funding through the Farm Service Agency to help make up for the loss in crops.
Clockwise from left: Cecil Gogan, the nephew of David Bartlett, steers the tractor pulling the potato harvester alongside one of Bartlett Farms’ potato fields; A large pile of potatoes sits at a potato house owned by Bartlett Farms; Potatoes are unloaded from the harvester onto a truck to be taken back to a potato house for storage. Credit: Alexander MacDougall / Houlton Pioneer Times
By David Bartlett’s estimation, he’s already down about five truckloads of potatoes. Though he normally runs about 200 acres of potatoes, this year he’s down to 180. The dryness of the soil can be evidenced in the large dust clouds that form when the harvester traverses the field to gather the crop.
“We’ve had dry seasons before,” he said. “But never anything like this.”
“It hurt our crop tremendously,” Bob Bartlett, his father, said. “We can’t produce the crops with no water to nourish them.”
David Bartlett used to run the farm jointly with his father, but assumed full control after Bob, who is 80, began to fall into ill health. The farm by Foxcroft Road is just one of several locations where the Bartletts plant their potato fields.
But Bob Bartlett doesn’t miss harvest. He can be found helping his son get in the family’s crop, and on this day was working at the potato house.
“He works 100 percent all of the time,” Bob Bartlett said of his son. “He don’t know any different, because that’s how I’ve been doing it since I was in high school.”
The process begins with the harvester machine, which lifts the potatoes from the soil and onto a conveyor, bringing up rocks and clumps of the weed-like potato tops along with them. Two people aboard the harvester sort out the rocks and tops as the potatoes are dropped from a conveyor onto one of Bartlett Farms’ trucks, one of which is driven by David’s son, John.
Once full, the truck heads off to a potato house owned by the Bartlett family along Route 1 in Littleton, where the potatoes are dumped onto another conveyor, much of the dirt being sieved out and any remaining rocks and tops are removed, before the crop is placed in a large pile to be stored.
Long black pipes containing water and air along the pile ensure the potatoes are stored at 36 degrees Fahrenheit, preventing them from sprouting and preparing them to be distributed.
This particular Thursday will prove to be a challenging one for the Bartletts. Though the morning starts in the low 50s, the temperature climbs into the 70s by the afternoon, adding some heat to the hard outdoor work and manual labor necessary to get the crop harvested.
Four workers who were supposed to be on the harvester fail to show up. While David Bartlett can work on the harvester for the first truckload, he has to be back at the potato house for the remainder of the day, meaning all the tops and rocks must be sorted out at the storage facility.
Clockwise from left: Peter Foster sorts through potatoes as they are unloaded onto a conveyor at a potato house owned by Bartlett Farms in Littleton; One of Bartlett Farms’ potato fields located by Littleton’s Foxcroft road; A large cloud of dust appears behind a potato harvester as it gathers the crops to send to the potato house. Credit: Alexander MacDougall / Houlton Pioneer Times
“These should have been left in the fields,” Bob Bartlett says, grabbing a handful of tops off the conveyor and placing them in a wheelbarrow. “But the people who were supposed to be on the harvester didn’t come.” Though the Bartletts have had people miss work before, four workers not showing up at once is unprecedented.
Bob motions toward another man, Peter Foster, one of the workers who did arrive that day, and helps sort the rocks and tops from the potatoes on the conveyor at the potato house. “He’s here every day. Nobody works as hard as he does,” he said of Foster.
David Bartlett and his workers will be harvesting nonstop from 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. — roughly from sunup to sundown.
But despite the loss due to drought, David Bartlett expects to pull through this harvest season, and hasn’t looked into getting any emergency funding. That’s because Bartlett Farms grows smaller, seeded potatoes, which are easier to grow as opposed to the larger, more recognized russet potato.
They began harvesting their crops on Sept. 14, and have only 10 acres remaining before they complete the harvest for this year.
For now, Bartlett Farms is safe to continue harvesting for another season.
“If we were russet growers, it wouldn’t be good,” David Bartlett said. “But we’ve been pleased with what we’ve been getting. Our customers will be pleased.”