Sept. 18, Houlton, Maine – I was disappointed not to have plunged into the heart of the North Maine Woods, but I knew I better get the hell out of Aroostook County soon.
I drove south on U.S. Route 1 from Presque Isle. The surrounding landscape was dominated by umber waves of undulating fields which until recently had glowed green with potato plants.
Now there were new potatoes here, new potatoes there, and new potatoes just about everywhere. Every half mile so stood a stand overflowing with sacks of new potatoes.
Soon I would have driven up and then down U.S. 1, from Houlton to Presque Isle and back, and done so without lifting a finger in an effort to find one potato farmer. This came to me as a reproach, one I couldn’t quite banish from my head.
But I figured I had learned enough, more than enough, more than I’ll ever be able to make use of, on the folkways of The County. I had to move. I’ve already missed 13 days of Max’s first-grade experience. I’m not getting along with my wife.
The real problem is I was down in the dumps and bereft of motivation. So I rationalized. Steinbeck had made a big deal of visiting Aroostook in 1960 because it was one of the nation’s three great potato beds. He didn’t mine it too deeply, and I figured if a passing reference to rolling potato fields had suited the master, maybe I should lighten up a bit.
To use an old newspaper expression for hiding a lack of reporting behind a fusillade of fancy words, I planned to “write around it.”
And so I would reference the phalanx of alabaster arms spinning around on the far hills and how they signaled a new power in The County: Wind. And I would turn to an old chestnut, the endless cords of firewood which were stacked to the heavens in grim anticipation of the New England winter. Then I would drive through Houlton, say farewell to Aroostook and make for the ocean.
I stopped for gas at little joint in a town called Littleton. I would have been in and out and down the road but for the old-fashioned predilections of the owners, Crystal and Gordon Hagerman. Crystal, a perky brunette wearing a Maine sweatshirt, came out to greet me.
She pumped the gas. I had to stand there, so I mustered the energy to ask a few desultory questions. My heart just wasn’t in it. She said her uncle has a potato farm, and she helped out during harvest time when she was a kid.
“I like the fall,” she said. “The harvest is hard work, but it only lasts three or four weeks, and then it’s over.”
I thanked her for her time, jumped in the camper, scribbled a few notes and rejoined 1 south. By the time I passed the Baptist Church, the nagging admonition had grown into full-blown self-flagellation. How hard would it have been to ask Crystal if she might put me in touch with her uncle? She said he hadn’t started to work on the harvest yet, so he might be available. I drove another mile, turned left into the parking lot of the Littleton Full Gospel Assembly, and talked myself into going back.
And so I did. I bought a cup of Keurig-brewed Keurig Green Mountain Coffee Roasters coffee, and Crystal gave me directions to her Uncle Dale Henderson’s potato barn. He grew seed potatoes, she said. It was just around the corner, up on a hilltop off Wiley Road. She said is barn was right next to one owned by his neighbor, Bob Bartlett. I shouldn’t have too much trouble finding someone to answer my questions.
I drove by the Baptist Church, hung a right on Wiley, crested the hill and, of course, drove right on by Dale Henderson’s barn. To be fair, I wasn’t sure it was the right place, since Crystal described the hill as very steep. Anything the Behemoth can climb without too much pain does not quite reach the level of steep.
I turned around, then briefly became intrigued by a swaybacked old mare staring at me from her field. Ain’t life hell? Youth races past you before you realize what you’ve got, and next thing you know, you’re waiting around to die. I hoped the old girl was happy, though I’m not sure what happiness is for a horse, let alone a human being.
I drove off and quickly turned right onto a gravel road fronted by a sagging wood house. That old house, I’d find out, was built by Tom Henderson, Dale’s grandfather.
I pulled up short of the barn, grabbed the camera and climbed out of the Behemoth. I heard voices, so I peeked in a side door. Three men worked on a large agricultural machine which I presumed to be integral to potato farming. That machine shielded me from their view.
When someone said “This OK, Dale?” I knew I was in the right place.
I strolled around to the front door and entered like I had been expected to arrive at about this time. And that’s exactly how I was received. No suspicious gazes. No interrogations. Just, “hey.”
The air inside was redolent of grease and petroleum, which smelled to me like an honest aroma. Dale, his brother Gerry and a third fellow I didn’t meet were getting busy preparing for harvest.
I don’t think I even mentioned that I’m a traveling “writer” or explained my purpose. I simply said I had been traveling about The County for two days and wanted to learn something about potato farming.
Dale smiled broadly.
“If you’re here Saturday,” “Dale said, you’ll learn plenty.”
Turns out Saturday is Day 1 of the fall harvest for Dale Henderson & Co. Dale Henderson looks like a farmer. Or maybe it was just his overalls, which were stained brown with dirt
What do I know?
Speaking of which, I’ve learned over time that ignorance can be an advantage. The human inclination, and I have been guilty of this on far too many occasions, is to pretend like you know shit about something when in fact you don’t know shit-all.
And that’s not a very efficient approach, because most people are happy to explain the rudiments of their craft, art or job if you show an interest and politely admit your ignorance. And since I’m one of the planet’s great ignoramuses, I am getting pretty good at this.
Question No. 1: What the hell is a seed potato?
They are, naturally enough, potatoes grown to be used as seeds for another farmer’s potato crop. Since 1957, Dale Henderson has planted seed potatoes every year but one.
He walked out of the barn and leaned against a big rig. On the bed was a large plastic water tank. He said he used to truck potatoes to upstate New York himself, but now he uses it to spray his fields.
He said if the seed potato is small enough, and here he made a circle about the size of a half-dollar with his thumb and forefinger, you plant the whole thing. If it’s much larger, you cut it in half and plant the halves. Then you wait, worry and hope for the best.
His father, Frank Henderson, and his grandfather Tom both grew potatoes around here. His father died in 1957, when he was in the eighth grade.
He’s been farming potatoes since.
Like most other blue-collar professions, farming is mostly mechanized now. Dale said he’ll use 12-15 part-time helpers during the harvest. During planting time, in May, it’s more like five or six. When he was a kid, Indian families would stream over the border from New Brunswick and work the potato fields during harvest.
“I remember going down there with my dad to pick them up,” he said. “We called them Indian camps. They’d camp out down by the brook until the harvest was in.”
Looking around at the ramshackle collection of discarded machinery lurking in the weeds and bushes, I could see that was a long time ago. I asked Dale about the heavy-metal contraption getting a working-over inside.
It’s called a windrower, he said. It’s the first line of the harvesting process, and he owns two of them. The windrower digs out the potatoes in rows, sifts out the dirt and lays the potatoes to the side in rows. The harvester follows in its wake, gathers up the potatoes and drops them into a truck which travels at its side. Dale pilots the harvester.
He plants 160 acres, and says in an average year he will harvest 40,000 hundredweight, or 4 million pounds, of potatoes. He ships them directly to Florida, to a farmer who will turn around and plant them around Christmastime. Conveniently, he sells his potatoes to the son of the man who bought Frank Henderson’s crop.
Is it more difficult, I asked, to for him to make profit now than it had been in 1957?
“It’s way riskier nowadays,” he said.
I asked why.
“The cost,” he said matter-of-factly. “In 1974, you could buy fertilizer for $52 a ton. Now it’s right around $500 a ton. A tractor that cost you $12,500 will now cost as much as $100,000.”
While he wouldn’t quite describe himself as part of a dying breed, he did say the cost of entering the business now is nothing shy of prohibitive.
“You couldn’t start now,” he said. “It’s just too expensive.”
No matter your age, farming potatoes is something of an annual gamble.
“You can be wiped out by one bad year. I’ve seen it happen. We’ve been fortunate. We’ve had it, but we’ve been able to control it.”
Lots of rain and fog is the worst thing for potatoes. Dampness creates a natural breeding ground for the blight, and blight is a farmer’s bete noire. Blight, if you don’t count the cruel indifference of British rule, is the scourge which produced the catastrophic Irish potato famine in the mid-19th century. The Great Famine killed a million Irishmen, women and children and spurred a million more to leave Ireland and seek a better life in a new land. The Hendersons were carried across the Atlantic in that migrant flood.
The unpredictability of the weather leaves a farmer powerless and given to prayer and superstition. With the fruits of his labor hidden beneath the surface of the earth, a potato farmer can only wait and hope. And worry.
“You worry all the time,” he said. “You worry all summer long. You can’t see what you have. It’s all underground. A lot of people can’t take the pressure. It’s a lot of pressure.”
I asked if he’s grown eating potatoes. He said he has in the past, but that’s even riskier business than planting seed potatoes. Despite the abundance of stands along Route 1 overflowing with sacks of new potatoes, Dale said farming of “table potatoes” has nearly vanished in Maine. Where Maine in its heyday planted 240,000 acres of potatoes, he said, now it’s more like 50,000 or 55,000.
A semi truck rumbled by, its trailer brimming with a small mountain of cream-colored spuds. That crop belongs to his neighbor, Bob Bartlett. In 48 hours, Henderson’s own harvest will start rolling toward the aluminum-covered barn. They’ll be loaded in by conveyor belt and stored until about Thanksgiving, when he’ll ship the first load south.
For a guy who’s about to discover how profitable his year has been, he seems incredibly at ease. He leaned against the trailer bed and chatted like we were sitting next to each other on bar stools and drinking beer.
Well, he said it’s been a dry summer, which what a potato farmer hopes for. That makes him reasonably confident his harvest will be a good one.
“We won’t get as many potatoes,” he said, “but we’ll get better quality potatoes.”
I asked what sort of celebration will follow the harvest. A pizza party, he said. Sounds like a mundane sort of celebration for such a momentous job. I’ve worked in newsrooms that have pizza parties on every election night. Oh well.
I thanked Dale for getting me off the Aroostook potato hook, wished him well, and said I hope it’s the best damn pizza he’s ever tasted.