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Should Aroostook County Schools Still Take Harvest Break if Few Kids Are Harvesting?

Jennifer Mitchell
Carson (left) and Kyle Flewelling work 12-hour days on their family farm in Easton during harvest break, spading up about 700 acres of russets for the fry and chip markets.

EASTON, Maine — That side of fries on your plate may have been harvested by a Maine child.

For generations, students in northern Maine have been dismissed from school for "harvest break" to help bring in Aroostook County's lucrative potato crop.

In the community of Easton, the school district still shuts down for a three-week recess, even though there's essentially just a single farming family left in town.

While other 14-year-olds across the country are slamming lockers and rushing to health class, Carson Flewelling has an enormous responsibility. He's in charge of the harvester for the first time, bringing in some 700 acres of russet potatoes, his family's income for the season.

Of all the kids in the small town of Easton, population 1,200, he and his little brother Kyle are the only kids whose family still farms potatoes.

If you find it challenging to drive a stick shift, it's a bit humbling to see a kid not yet old enough to shave handling a huge piece of machinery, capable of churning up six rows of spuds at a time. It's a machine that can kill in an instant, and if Carson does it wrong, he could ruin the family crop.

It's the very gravity of this responsibility that makes harvest break so valuable, says Carson's father, Brent Flewelling. He says kids today should be given real-world responsibility.

"They go from high school, they go to college. And then they've got to go out into the workforce and find out what it's like," he says. "This is a totally different experience. It's a good opportunity. More kids should have this chance."

Credit Jennifer Mitchell / MPBN
Bruce Flewelling (left) and his son Nick farm about 1,000 acres of potatoes. Only about four kids from Easton High School signed up for harvest this year.

But they're not really taking it, says another member of the family, Bruce Flewelling, whose 1,000-acre farm is just up the road.

He says a kid who works for him can earn anywhere from $800 to nearly $2,000 for the three-week harvest break. But this season has been a disappointment; only four kids signed up to work the crew.

"The families during the harvest break go on vacations," Flewelling says. "Before, that never happened. When harvest was here, it was harvest."

But it's not surprising really, he says. So many families have gotten out of the farming business altogether that the town has almost completely lost touch with its roots.

And, he says, hiring migrant labor for such a short, fast season isn't practical. While mechanization has slashed the need to bring in extra help, Flewelling says he still needs several pairs of hands each season, but these days, those hands are more likely to be playing Angry Birds than volunteering to sort potatoes.

"Now, it's just another summer break as far as I can see," he says.

And this worries Kevin Marquis who runs the local Future Farmers of America chapter.

"That was one of the things that set young people in Aroostook County apart from a lot of children over the years," he says. "They understood the value of a dollar."

On paper, Marquis says he has well over a hundred students enrolled in FFA, but in practice only a couple dozen show up for the programs.

He says one of the things FFA struggles to teach is business sense and fiscal responsibility, and getting a student to work on a potato farm was always an effective teaching tool, he says.

"When you started out on your knees picking potatoes for 25 or 30 cents a barrel, and that money was to go to your winter clothes," he says, "when you went to the store you were very, very astute about how much money you were paying for something. You weren't interested in what the brand name was on it. You wanted to know how far you could make that money go."

Credit Jennifer Mitchell / MPBN
At age 14, Carson Flewelling is in charge of the harvester for the first time this year.

"I save half of it," says 12-year-old Kyle Flewelling, Carson's little brother, when asked about his farm earnings. "The other half gets blown on a whole bunch of stuff."

"I try to save more than half," Carson says, "but most of the time it's just half."

While the boys can earn a wage on their family farm and work long hours, modern labor laws mean that their friends must wait until they're 16 years old to work the break anyway.

Just a few decades ago, it wasn't uncommon for a farm to employ a 10- or a 12-year-old to pick potatoes, a practice that raised some concerns over the use of child labor.

Carson and Kyle say a few of their friends seem interested in working when they come of age, but most say they would rather stay home and sleep in.

"I think there probably is sufficient evidence to make any case you want to make," says Superintendent of Schools Roger Shaw of the arguments on both sides of the question of whether harvest break still makes any sense for a town like Easton.

But primarily, he says complaints from parents have more to do with the onus of juggling child care and baby sitters over the break than anything else.

"I'm much more concerned with what goes on in the classroom the 175 days that we have students attending our school, than I am with whether the three-week harvest break is good or bad," he says.

Shaw says he can discern no difference in graduation rates, test scores or performance to other districts that have no harvest break. And he agrees with the Marquis that work experience can teach something the school can't.

But still, it's a tradition that's under constant scrutiny, now that so few families in the region are farming, and he says he wouldn't be surprised to see a day when the harvest break goes the way of the horse and cart, just a fond memory of an another time.