Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Gleaning: A Nostaligic Tuber Tale

A brisk walk, especially after several consecutive days of rain, always refreshes my mind and body.  One of my favorite nearby walking trails passes alongside a potato field, and on my most recent walk, the field had just recently been harvested.  The flattened rows were littered with dead vines, rocks, and many stray potatoes.  Some of the tubers were just too small for the machinery to pick up, some were rotten or green and tossed over the side by the workers, and some were perfectly fine ones that had fallen overboard from the conveyor belt on the harvester or from an overloaded truck.  It’s not uncommon to see some potatoes left behind after a field has been harvested.  Those heavily-laden trucks are also responsible for the small piles of potatoes that can be found along roadsides at this time of year. In making a corner with too much speed, a potato truck piled too high with spuds on its way to the storage facility can spill a few onto the side of the road.

I remember how much those roadside piles of potatoes bothered my grandfather when I rode around running errands with him as a kid.  It didn’t bother him enough to stop, get out and pick them up, but I think he considered it at times.  He and my grandmother were no strangers to hard times and going without, having been newlyweds during the Great Depression of the1930s.  As such, they both had an aversion to anything going to waste, despite the relative comfort they enjoyed in their old age, thanks to some wise savings and a mysterious thing the young me heard them refer to as “soshsecurtee”.

My grandfather had worked as a farm equipment mechanic until he retired, and my grandmother had worked in the actual potato harvest itself for decades.  Consequently, they were very plugged in to the local farming culture.  This was how they came to start gleaning the fields in their later years.  

For many years, most potato harvesting was done by hand. A machine called a “digger” would upend the rows, exposing the potatoes. A large crew of hired pickers would collect them in baskets, and then empty them into barrels, which were collected on a flatbed truck that passed by.  Each full barrel was tagged with the picker’s number, and the picker was paid by the number of barrel picked at the end of the week.  At this harvesting technique’s peak, a picker could earn fifty cents a barrel.  Potato picking was often the first real job teenagers in this part of the world ever held, though lots of adults took part in the annual harvest too.  I’ve heard many stories of young potato pickers packing the local dairy bar, bowling alley and movie house on fall Saturday nights, enjoying the freedom that came with having their own hard-earned wages to spend as they pleased.

How they used to do it:
N.C. Wyeth painting via

As automated harvesting machines staffed by a small crew of only four or five became more the norm in the 1970s, fewer and fewer actual pickers were employed.  The local farmers often commented on the fact that, while they were saving time and money with a much smaller crew and faster machinery, it seemed like some perfectly good spuds were being left behind by the new harvesters.  After they had both retired from formally working in the harvest, my grandparents and some of their friends, with the blessing of some farmer friends for whom it was just not economically viable to collect the missed spuds, would spend many pleasant fall afternoons gleaning the left-behind potatoes from the fields. As a child, I always spent a few days of every school break with my grandparents in the country, but during the three-week potato harvest break I spent a little more time, since I was an extra set of helping hands in the fields with them.

How it's done now:

This operation was “no small potatoes”, if you’ll pardon the expression.  A small cadre of a dozen or so gleaners, which included my grandparents and often me, could usually be found in the fields of consenting farmers.  On a good afternoon when both my grandmother and grandfather were feeling well and the weather was nice, they could pick upwards of 150 pounds of potatoes between them.  The haul was even more if their energetic young grandson, namely me, was along with them.  Granted, some of the potatoes were on the small side, but most were comparable in quality to those found at the grocery store.  My grandparents fully stocked themselves, my family, and almost all their friends and relatives with a winter’s worth of tubers, with no money changing hands.  My grandfather would become downright indignant if someone insisted on trying to pay him for the potatoes he was offering.

There were few things that garnered my grandfather’s admiration more than my picking a large amount of potatoes on a given afternoon.  He was kind of a gruff old fart, though I was quite fond of him.  It wasn’t easy for him to express his feelings, but his pride over seeing that I had outdone either of them was not to be hidden.  He especially enjoyed when I had gathered more than my grandmother, who was a prodigious picker in her day.  I can’t help but wonder if my involvement with this yearly tradition of theirs was intended to instill a work ethic in me.  If so, it worked over the long-term.

My potato-picking prowess followed kind of a bell-curve over time however.  When I was very little, my job was to help my grandmother fill her basket.  What I lacked in amount of potatoes picked, I more than made up for in enthusiasm.  Of course, my fascination with the farm machinery working on the other side of the field tended to interfere with my focus an awful lot when I was so young.  What I was able to gather myself probably made up the difference for what my grandmother was unable to collect due to having to keep one eye on her wander-prone grandson.  From the ages of about 9-12, I was in my prime and could outpick either of my grandparents in a given afternoon if I tried.  Once I hit my teenage years, my enthusiasm for the task began to wane and turn to other things, at the same time my aging grandparents’ energy level was beginning to do the same.  They stopped gleaning the fields at about the same time I stopped going out to visit every school break.

Gleaning the potato fields served several purposes for my grandparents, beyond the obvious benefit of supplying them with potatoes.  In their retirement years, it kept them connected to the potato harvest, which was an ingrained part of the Northern Maine culture, especially to their generation.  It gave them an opportunity to get outdoors and exercise.  They were preventing something from going to waste.  By collecting so many potatoes, they could provide something useful and substantial to their loved ones.  And, it was a common activity they could do alongside their grandson, while passing along to him life-lessons and a culture that was rapidly changing.

My grandparents had this very postcard on their refrigerator for years.

My potato picking grandparents are gone now.  My grandmother passed away seventeen years ago, and my grandfather twelve. I’m so grateful for the experiences I had with them, of which this was only one of many.  Maybe leaning over, picking dirty things up for hours at a time in a cold, muddy field for no monetary remuneration isn’t your idea of fun, and I cannot say that it would be mine nowadays either.  Nonetheless, it was one of those valuable things that ultimately left several marks on me.  It taught me about hard work and the satisfaction that can be derived from it.  It taught me about not letting things go to waste.  It taught me about giving.  And it taught me that “quality time” does not necessarily have to be all fun and games.  It doesn’t require batteries or chargers, keeping score, brisk action, or a lot of noise.  It’s much simpler and yet at the same time much more sophisticated than all that.

Thank you, Gramps and Gram.

In loving memory of:
Verda (1913-1995) & Mark (1910-2000)

***No copyright infringement is intended in the use of these photographs.  They will be gladly be removed upon request by the copyright holder.

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