Unearthing Gifts from the Earth

July 20, 2017
Potato Harvesting
Kirsten O'Connell

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Potato Harvesting Traditions on a Family Farm in Maine

Cully Colantino, age 13, tells me that his two favorite times of the year are Christmas and harvest.

Yes, harvest. Every fall, for the past seven years, Cully has visited Monticello, Maine, with his sister and family to harvest potatoes at his uncle’s 1,000-acre farm.

You can guess what interests kids. They get to dig their hands into the soil, crawl along the ground, and get dirty, and no one minds. Cully also loves to see the big equipment—the potato harvester, the windrowers, and the trucks. This year, he got to ride.

And on a quiet morning, he loves to watch the frost on the fields, waiting until it’s warm enough to run outside. There are times when he has to wait until 1 P.M. to start digging. The ground must be warm and dry—and it can not be raining—to dig potatoes.

Morning frost at the farm

His mother, Kirsten, says the visits to her family farm are also one of her favorite traditions. “I was raised spending summers and winters on the farm. My grandfather started it. His name was Lawrence Good—and he named it Good Farms. He passed it on to my uncle Tom, who has worked on the farm all his life. Now my kids have been following the tradition their whole lives.”

Kirsten finds that the harvest brings life lessons to her children. “They see how hard everyone is working in the fields and how hard it is to move earth. The potatoes must be harvested all at once, from late September to mid-October, 6:30 to 8 P.M., 7 days a week, until it’s done. Everyone’s exhausted but happy. There's a big harvest celebration party to give thanks to all the workers and everyone who pitched in. Then, the kids get to go home to eat what they just dug up. They're participating in the circle of life.”

Here’s a glimpse of how potato harvesting works:

The potatoes are planted in early spring and are one of the last crops to be harvested in the fall.  This potato fields on this farm cover 48 acres.

(See how to plant and grow your own potatoes here.)

Sometimes Kirsten visits the farm in the summer. “You might be surprised by how beautiful potato fields are! Beautiful, green low foliage covers the ground with white flowers. It’s so majestic to look out at the fields to see green and white.”

By the fall, the plants die back—and it's harvesttime!

Fields died back and ready for harvest

At the start of a day’s harvest, 2 large windrowers travel down the rows of crops (called windrows), lifting the potatoes from the earth with large shovels.

Cully and his cousin Eric riding a potato windrower

The windrowers separate the potatoes from the vines, plant material, and soil. Then, they place the potatoes on top of the ground.

Potatoes deposited in rows by windrowers

Following behind the windrowers is a harvester alongside a loading truck.

The harvester collects the potatoes; often, the crew stands on the harvester to help pick out the rocks that inevitably come along with the potatoes. Then, the potatoes travel up a conveyor chain and pour into the nearby truck.

The harvester and potato truck in action

When the potato truck is full, it leaves to dump potatoes in the potato house—and a new truck rotates in. The potatoes are stored in large buildings with giant bins and insulated walls to keep the potatoes dark and cool.

(See how to build your own root cellar here.)

At this farm, the potatoes will be sold to grocery stores and french fry makers.

The following year, there won't be potatoes in these fields. The crops will rotate to avoid depleting the soil of nutrients. Next year will be wheat!

On the wheat combine! Cully (at the far right), sister Florence, cousins Odin (in front) and Atticus

Of course, the machines are cool.  But the real magic for the kids is potato harvesting the old-fashioned way—with their hands.

The children's eyes light up as they unearth each potato. What size is it? Oh, a big one! What shape is it? Look at this one! Their mother, Kirsten, says that they never want to stop digging to discover their treasures.

It's as if they're opening a new gift each time.

Florence really digs potatoes!

It may not be Christmas in all its meaning, but it's a gift from the earth.

So maybe it's not so surprising that a child's favorite holidays could be Christmas and harvest.