St. John Valley

Traditional potato harvest break continues at some Aroostook County schools

High school students, some of whom are seen working on a potato harvester in back settlement fields of Fort Kent in September 2016, still comprise part of farmer Dale Caron’s seasonal workforce. (Don Eno | SJVT/FhF)

Students, teachers and administrators are looking ahead to another school year starting in the next month or two. For some, that means buying new school clothes, finishing some classroom renovations or preparing new lesson plans.

In Aroostook County, it also can mean making arrangements to start classes earlier and then take a break for the potato harvest. For decades, harvesting potatoes, once a labor-intensive endeavor, required all hands on deck, which meant pulling students out of school to help.

With mechanization, reductions in acreage and other factors, however, there are fewer laborers needed and fewer schools now have a scheduled harvest break. But in some agricultural communities, school officials have continued the tradition of releasing students in the early fall to help local farmers.

All Maine School Administrative District 27 schools break for harvest. SAD 27 serves students in the greater Fort Kent and Eagle Lake region, which includes many farms, both large and small.

“It has been a tradition in this area for years and we will continue to support our local farmers by honoring the harvest break tradition,” said Superintendent Ben Sirois.  

Michaela Pelletier, 16, of Mars Hill, helps sort potatoes at Double G Farms Inc. in Blaine in late September 2016. Pelletier was one of seven teenagers working on the farm that harvest. (Courtesy of Heidi Garrison)

Last year, nearly 70 students worked on potato farms during the break, based on data collected by the district, according to Sirois.

To account for the harvest, SAD 27 students will start school on Aug. 17 and then will be off from Sept. 21 until Oct. 10. Faculty will still be in school on Sept. 21 and 22 for teacher workshops.

Similarly, the harvest break continues for SAD 33, which serves the communities of Frenchville and St. Agatha in the central St. John Valley, where there is substantial potato acreage.

“We feel it’s important to support our largest taxpayers,” Superintendent Lisa Bernier said in reference to the farmers.

Each year school officials survey students in grades 7 through 12 to find out if they were directly or indirectly involved in working during harvest break. Some students not old enough to work in the fields may babysit for a parent who does work, she said.

While the younger elementary school students may not be involved with the harvest, all schools start and shut down at the same time to keep the schedules the same and to save on bus and other costs, she said.

SAD 33’s harvest break this year will be from Sept. 24 to Oct. 6. School starts on Aug. 16.

A couple of school districts in The County do split their school schedules, however, to allow the older students to work the harvest while having younger children maintain a more traditional school year.

At the Madawaska School Department, for instance, elementary school students do not get a harvest break, but the middle/high school will shut down for two weeks beginning Sept 25. The greater Madawaska and Grand isle area, also has substantial potato acreage.

In Madawaska, elementary school students start classes on Aug. 31 and secondary students’ first day of class is on Aug. 17.

Similarly, at MSAD 1 in Presque Isle, only high school students have a harvest break, and they start school Aug. 17, while elementary and middle schoolers start classes on Sept. 5.

While SAD 24 has retained its harvest recess, the Van Buren area school district is trying a shorter one this year. The first day of school will be Aug. 23 and the break will be from Sept. 23 to Oct. 2 this year.

“This was a decision made by the Harvest Committee, to try one week and a day instead of two weeks, due to the limited number of high school students who actually work harvest,” said Van Buren District Principal Karen Dubois.

Dubois said the new schedule would be reassessed to determine if the calendar will remain this way or go back to two weeks of harvest.

Aug. 16 is the first day of school in the Easton School System, with the three-week harvest break starting Sept. 15.

While the town of Easton has only a few potato growers, they farm a significant amount of acreage and depend on local students to fill a short window of labor-intensive work, said Easton Schools superintendent Roger Shaw.

“A substantial number of our high school students work for area farmers during the harvest break,” Shaw said.

“The school board has been consistent in its commitment to do what is necessary to assist the potato growers in our community,” he said, explaining why the local community has continued the harvest break.

Shaw said the district has seen the harvest break as a way to support local potato growers, who comprise a significant portion of the local tax base, along with the Huber Engineered Woods and McCain Foods factories. It’s also been a way for local students to garner work in a town that doesn’t have many after-school jobs available for teens.

All grades are out of school during the break because it would cost too much to keep the schools open for just elementary students, Shaw said.

SAD 42, which serves students in the Mars Hill area, has scheduled a harvest break from Sept. 18 to Oct. 6. Students in the district begin classes on Aug. 16.

Harvest break is only one week long at SAD 20, which serves students in the Fort Fairfield area. Classes there will start on Aug. 20 and then students will break be off Oct. 2 through 6.

The Maine School of Science and Mathematics, a residential high school in Limestone, does not participate in harvest break. Incoming MSSM students will begin classes on Aug. 21.

Several other school systems in The County have done away with the harvest recess, including in the Ashland area and the southern Aroostook region —  RSU 29 (Houlton area), RSU 50 (Smyrna/Island Falls area) and SAD 70 (Hodgdon area) — where schools will start on either Sept. 5 or 6.

Editor’s Note: Reporters Joseph Cyr, Christopher Bouchard and Anthony Brino contributed to the story.

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