PRESQUE ISLE, Maine - In the fall of 1960, sensing the end of his life approaching, John Steinbeck set off on a road trip around America with his dog. He began by pointing his truck as far to the northeast as he could until he hit Aroostook County, that part of Maine that “sticks up like a thumb into Canada.’’ There, he said, his hope was to see potatoes.
“As it turned out,’’ Steinbeck wrote in “Travels with Charley,’’ a book about that journey, “I saw almost more potatoes than I needed to see. I saw mountains of potatoes - oceans - more potatoes than you would think the world’s population could consume in a hundred years.’’
For Steinbeck arrived during the potato harvest, a great tradition where those mountains were built, by hand, by the people of Aroostook County.
Today, you can still see more potatoes than you need to see in Aroostook County at harvest time, but the talk, this and every year, is for how much longer this great tradition will last, for the harvest, and the potato itself, have seen better days.
The newest worry comes in the form of a US Department of Agriculture proposal to radically change the guidelines for school meals, a plan that involves a missile strike against potatoes.
The core of the measure is a war on french fries and potato chips, but it would ban all potatoes from breakfast and severely reduce the amount served at lunch to the equivalent of about one cup per week.
US Senator Susan Collins, a Republican from “the County’’ who grew up picking potatoes in the fields, is leading the fight against the proposal, which would take effect next year if approved.
And then there is the decline in the harvest break, the most iconic part of the tradition, where students get out of school to work the fields. But the talk is about how much longer.
It used to be that all the schools got out for three full weeks in late September and early October, but now it is just the high schools; the middle schools close for a week, if at all. Student hand labor - the tedious back-breaking process of picking potatoes off the ground and piling them into baskets - has been mostly supplanted by the harvester, increasingly skillful machines that dig up and start the process of sorting potatoes from the clumps and rocks.
The last hand-picking farms disappeared a couple of years ago. Most students work on the harvesters, working along a conveyer belt to finish the sorting process, but the state says you need to be 16 before you can put your fingers near those open grinding parts.
The few who can still find work - only 20 percent of the 600 in the county’s largest high school in Presque Isle last year - face being replaced each year by better machinery.
Despite the low numbers, talk about ending the harvest break outright has gone nowhere. The Presque Isle superintendent has been told to bring the topic back to the school board when the number hits 15 percent, but in the county, the favorite argument for keeping the tradition alive is the tradition itself. It is, as much as the potatoes, what the county is known for.
“I really wanted this experience,’’ said Isaac LaJoie, who is the top-ranked student in the senior class at Presque Isle High School. “I didn’t want to miss what my parents and grandparents had. It doesn’t get any more real than farming, as far as work goes.’’
His grandparents and parents, of course, are sure to tell him how easy he has it - they truly did end the days picking on their hands and knees in the dirt because their backs hurt so much - but by the time LaJoie puts in a 12-hour-day and then goes to soccer practice, he said he can barely find his way to his bed.
As he spoke, Lajoie was standing next to, and working on, a new giant machine at Buck Farms in Mapleton called a clod hopper. The machine didn’t really need much human help. It had been turned on for the first time a few days before, and it was so good at the main task of the harvest laborers - separating the potatoes from the rocks and the clumps of dirt - that it was clearly going to put even more of the students out of work next year.
Already, Buck Farms had cut its workforce from 10 students on the harvesters last year to four, and now this machine was going to reduce the number needed back at the potato house, where they make the mountains.
Each student lost weakens the tradition, but the overwhelming majority of people want to see whatever’s left last as long as it can.
“You look at a lot of society’s problems and I think they could be solved by having kids work on an Aroostook County potato harvest,’’ said Jim Gerritsen, who owns Wood Prairie Farms in Bridgewater, an organic operation that was, until four years ago, one of the last to use hand pickers.
“On some days, we’d have 25 kids in the field,’’ he said. “They worked hard. They learned the value of a dollar. Once you learn how to work, it’s with you all your life. Times change, but to me this is one of the traditions worth keeping.’’
They live hard up here, seven hours north of Boston. They don’t survive by accident in this county that is more connected to Acadia than Boston; many residents of the northern part of the county speak French, though there is a Red Sox bar on Main Street.
But for all its size - roughly equal to Connecticut and Rhode Island combined - there are just 70,000 residents, almost all of whom can tell you that these facts make it the most sparsely populated county this side of the Mississippi.
And so, in more than a few ways, the older generations look down at a younger generation that has it easier.
“There are more kids downtown on the streets than there is working,’’ said Eugene Hoffses, who is 81 and drives a truck back and forth from the field to the potato house.
He’s long past the point of having to work, but wants to, because it’s a straight line to that year when his mother told him if he made enough to buy all his winter clothes, he could buy a bicycle. He did.
Now, he said with disgust, farmers who list jobs on the Potato Pickers’ Special, a show on the local CBS channel every morning from 5 to 6, can’t even fill their openings.
At Sleeper’s, which has been in Caribou since 1914 and is one of those incredible country stores that sells eggs and North Face jackets, youngsters used to build temporary dressing rooms out of shoe boxes for that first Saturday night they got paid. “Pandemonium,’’ is how the owner described it.
Senator Collins, who hand-picked when she was 11 and 12, remembers it being a stigma not to participate; you had to be involved directly or indirectly. “There was a sense of community that I can’t overstate. Everybody helped, all the children, and we were very cognizant of the fact that this had to be done in a quick period before a heavy frost made it impossible to dig the fields. Everything revolved around getting the crop out.’’
At the Riverside Inn & Restaurant in Presque Isle, a popular diner with farmers, Courtney Colligan, 17, was happy to have done her two years on the harvester, and even happier that she was waitressing this year.
“You’re so tired that you laugh, or you hate your life,’’ she said of the long hours in the field. “The first day you’re hyped up. By the second week, your eyes have glazed over from looking at potatoes.’’
Her mother, of course, told her how much easier she had it.Billy Baker can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.