If you’ve picked potatoes by hand in Aroostook County, you understand the significance of this quote: “This is Wayne Knight on the Potato Picker’s Special. Looks like a great day out there. Everybody’s going right on time.”
If those words are familiar, you probably remember waking before dawn, waiting in the cold for the farmer’s truck and struggling to keep up as you filled basket after basket of potatoes in your rows and dumped them into barrels.
You might even remember your personal record for barrels picked in a day.
These are the kinds of memories that inspired Fort Fairfield native Pete Robinson to create words and images portraying his potato picking experience in a slick little book titled “Harvest Time: A Day in the Life of Picking Potatoes.”
“If you grew up in Aroostook County, you remember getting out of school in the fall to pick potatoes,” he writes. “I didn’t realize what a unique experience that was until I moved away and told people about it.”
A 1989 University of Maine graduate with a degree in engineering, Robinson lives in Pawcatuck, Connecticut, where he is a financial advisor for First Financial Advisory Services, based in Rhode Island. He returns to Aroostook County as often as he can and says that when he travels north on Route 1A and crests the hill overlooking the vast fields of Fort Fairfield, “I know I am home.”
The feel of that landscape radiates from the illustrations in “Harvest Time.” The sun makes a yellow edge of a gray horizon, emerging like an egg yolk while the moon is still high and three boys await an approaching truck. As the sun rises, the horizon becomes a burst of fall colors and the boys are assigned their rows.
“The first rows of the day were tough. Your hands were cold, and your back was stiff,” says the text accompanying the image of a picker bent over his basket in the field. Robinson’s drawings capture the actions of the workers with a few lines — some bold, some fine — and portray the season with splotches of color against the gray.
“The less I think, the better,” he says of his rapid sketching style. He did all the artwork using a special application on his iPad.
Experienced pickers will smile at the illustrations of how to pick, to knock dirt from gloves and to fill the time when the digger breaks down. When I shared my copy of the book with Aroostook County friends, it evoked all kinds of recollections. One remembered making a fire out of tops and roasting potatoes in the field. Another said her mother brought homemade soup out to the field for the pickers. They all remembered their personal record for barrels picked in a day.
“We all had to find our own picking style,” Robinson writes. “At lunchtime, we’d sit in the rows or the edge of the field and wolf down whatever we had. Baloney sandwiches never tasted so good.”
The three boys pictured with their lunch boxes open could be any three pickers. For Robinson, they represent his youth with his two best friends: Rick Langley and Jeff Ashby. The three remain close and reunited at Robinson’s book sale table at this year’s Potato Blossom Festival.
He said he hopes the book will help keep harvest memories alive for those who picked potatoes by hand and that it will provide a “window into the experience” for those who did not.
“The harvest made us all equals for a few weeks,” he writes. “It didn’t matter who your parents were or how you were doing in school. All that mattered was keeping up your section. We made friends we won’t forget. We also learned lifelong lessons about the value of hard work.”
Robinson is proud to say he picked potatoes. It’s an experience he puts on his resume. “Things are different these days,” he writes. “The world has sped up and picking by hand is mostly a thing of the past. There are fewer family farms. But I won’t forget the smell of the soil, the feel of the barrel and the sound of the digger rolling by. Harvest time will always be with us.”