CONFESSIONS OF A MAINE POTATO (ROCK) PICKER by Ellen B. Fine

Like most kids growing up in rural northern Maine, Drake Higgins worked picking rocks…er I mean potatoes… he jokes with that typical Maine accent and frank-friendliness.  For those of you from away, in Aroostook and Somerset County, late September means potato harvesting.   For over a century kids have been let out of school in these northern areas without much economic development or jobs except for paper mills, potato harvesting or blueberry raking.  This child labor has been the dirty little secret of the rural Maine economy for years.

Higgins, who’s for want of a better word, piercing blue eyes focus the truth and the hardship of a sixteen year old high school drop out with no work experience.  “It was up at 5am, working until 7:30 at night for the better part of a summer.”  For the first couple of hours they stood around, waiting for the guy with the tractor to decide which field they would be harvesting.  “Those guys were mostly drunk, a bunch of drug addicts doing cocaine.  A lot of people lose hope up there.” The owners of the farm, planted in two week intervals so that there was always a crop of potatoes to pick.  It is following the tractor that turns the potatoes up and then it’s bending and lifting and sifting out rocks. Usually you are walking; occasionally you are on your knees.  “It was just two or three of us in a field.”

Drake Higgins and I met up after one of the Occupy Boston General Assemblies, to drink a coffee and talk about his potato experiences over a decade ago.  He went on to run warehouses for Verizon, work selling jewelry, construction for carnivals.  He reflects with another joke, “Here I am homeless (except for the tent in Dewey Square) and I am volunteering my time on the safety patrol, I get wellness, medical care, food.  But when I was picking potatoes, I had no benefits, no medical and I was being paid perhaps $4-$5 an hour, if I got paid and sometimes we didn’t get paid.  At the time normal wages would have been more like $6-$7 an hour. But when you never had a job before and there’s nothing else to do, No hope up there so lots of people drink or go fishing or both.”

So when I asked where they ever spraying the potatoes while you were working or did they wait for you to leave the fields, once again, I received one of those ‘you gotta be kidding me’  looks.  “A lot of times we would be in one field pruning plants, they would be across the street, doing aerial spraying.” (with a crop duster)  You could smell it though we never actually got sprayed. Any precautions: NO.  “On a hundred acre field, they are spraying the other half.”  So what were they spraying for?  “They sprayed for potato bugs and blight the whole summer.”  Did you ever complain to your employer:  “Basically it was like get out there and work or I’ll find someone else to do it.”

The farmer ‘employed’ his own kids, who were even younger, 13 and 14.  Higgins explained his understanding of the Maine law that doesn’t preclude child labor if it is in the family business.  Did you talk to your parents about it?  “I complained to my parents that this guy is spraying chemicals but my parents wer used to it.  They grew up in Maine, worked in farms on in factories their whole lives.

Wondering how much the industry has changed or if this is a one off story, Higgins waxes on The Desert of Maine.  Confused I ask him if he means Mt. Desert Island.  He talks about the overproduction of potatoes in Maine, how naturally it strips soils of nutrients and that if farmers aren’t rotating crops or letting fields lie fallow or planting with cover crops, potato farming will strip soil, so now there is a whole chunk of Maine they refer to the Desert of Maine.  The website, www.desertofmaine.com fills in the story. “In 1797 the Tuttle family moved to the 300 acre farm that once covered the Desert of Maine where they successfully raised crops of potatoes and hay for several years. Failure to rotate crops thereafter, combined with massive land - clearing and overgrazing resulted in severe soil erosion that exposed this hidden Desert. As the spreading sand grew uncontrollable, the Tuttles surrendered, leaving the Desert to it's destiny.”

So then we start getting into the tough stuff, the health and life circumstances.  We wax on the subject of Maine Fahmahs and that many are old and set in their ways…. “I hate to be judgmental…  My grandfather, had brain cancer from working in factories around asbestos, lead paint in the mills.  He was always a farmer and his parents were always involved in farming too.”  Higgins was born three months premature, and had a burst blood vessel in his brain at seven months.  Around 13 or 14 he starts to have issues like many teens, however at 16 or 17 after working on the farm, he admits to really starting to rebel and some bi polar type issues showed up.  So who’s to say if the multiple generations of chemicals, in terms of pesticides his parents and grandparents used and the pesticides he was exposed to that summer before his problems started had anything to do with his health.  Pesticides are endocrine disruptors, implicated in brain cancer.  And if you put the whole toxic soup together, who’s to say which one tipped the body’s balance over into the body’s burden.

When he is back in Maine, Drake gardens organically.  He has nothing but praise for MOFGA.  He knows his herbs and his wild plants as part of his heritage as a rural Mainer who is also part Penobscot.  We talk about tomato blight and how to cure it and the future of organics.  “I see potential in organics but lots of work, some farmers who use chemicals think, my family did it this way, they are accustomed to growing with pesticides, it’s too much work and they’re not afraid of physical work, just too much brain work in order to change.”

At the end of the night, Higgins gave me a quick hug and he buttoned up coat, zipped up his straightened his layers of sweaters, turned the walkie talkie back up as he headed back to Dewey Square to work the late night shift.