OUR ROCKY REMINDERS OF SUMMER. The old timer's saying describing February is apt with this morning's -19oF thermometer reading: "As the days lengthen, the cold strengthens."
Every day during the Winter our work repeats itself by dealing with Summer's bounty. While that is designed to mean grading, packaging and shipping our organic Maine Certified Seed Potatoes to many thousands of gardens across America, it also means dealing with Aroostook County's ever-present rocks.
During harvest, the vast majority of rocks are left behind in the fields where they belong. However, there are always clever rocks that slip by and they do add up. Once identified they are collected and in time, returned unceremoniously to their native outside habitat. Caleb, Megan & Jim
REDWOOD STREAM AT BIG SUR, CALIFORNIA. Circa 2016. The last 'Agrarian Elders Gathering' was five years ago at Esalen Center, in Big Sur, south of Monterey. The breathtaking spot has steep cliffs and is literally perched right above the Pacific Ocean in the coastal region where steep mountains descend right into the sea. It is quite the engineering marvel that one hundred years ago they they were able to cut the ribbon of road out from the mountains and construct what now is known as Highway 1.
The first Ag Elders Gathering (nytimes dot com/2014/01/25/business/the-elders-of-organic-farming.html) was held two years earlier during the California drought and the weather was dry and spectacular (esalen dot org/sites/default/files/resource_attachments/January2014AgrarianElders Summary.pdf). This second time around the weather was more normal and California's water situation had improved. In fact, Big Sur had received a heavy 3" rain right before we got there. Streams were roaring on our first day and then the flow gradually dropped as our week of Ag discussions wore on.
Most of us were housed – two to a small room – in what had at one time been a house. My roomie both times was my good friend Tom Willey of TD Willey Farms in Madera CA whom I'd first met at a USDA GE Crops meeting twenty years earlier (woodprairie dot com/newsletters/winterspring97.pdf). With a good running start you could almost jump through our bedroom window and reach the ocean hundreds of feet below. The 'house' had a good-sized meeting room with big windows and beside it a kitchen for coffee and snacks.
The main eating hall commons was a seven-minute walk away. Simultaneous to our gathering, other eclectic sessions were also being held elsewhere on the Esalen complex. To get to mealtime it was necessary for us to cross a footbridge which spanned a Redwood ravine and its beautiful shaded stream. After crossing the bridge, one could take a narrow path which follows the stream uphill. It was there this photo was taken.
The geographic isolation of Esalen is such that there is no cell phone service. On the porch outside our 'house' was a landline payphone for emergencies. While the Esalen campus has wifi internet, they surreptitiously shut it down around mealtimes in an effort to encourage conversation. Imagine that! Jim
AROOSTOOK COUNTY, MAINE, POTATO HARVEST. Circa 1940. While many farmers had switched to tractors in the pre-war years, some continued to farm with horses.
This one-row potato digger was relatively modern. While horses propelled the machine forward this digger's lag chain was powered by a gasoline engine (behind the farmer) which allowed flexibility is adjusting lag bed speed depending on soil moisture. In wet conditions the lag bed speed could be amped up to more vigorously shake the 'mud' (pejorative) through the gaps in the metal lag chain.
The job of the 'diggerman' was to dig up potatoes out of their entombment in the hill and gently lay them on top of the ground (along with rocks). Hand pickers would follow with ash baskets and fill their cedar potato barrels. Pickers were paid piece rate by the barrel. A standard 11-peck barrel held 165 pound of potatoes.
Photo by Jack Delano of the U.S. Farm Security Administration. Caleb, Megan & Jim
MICHIGAN, WELCOME TO YOUR NEW WOOD PRAIRIE HOME. Circa 2021. After a fair bit of a search last Summer we were able to negotiate a good deal on a huge, articulated, old-timer Michigan Payloader in surprisingly good condition. In terms of beauty the machine is this side of a Hollywood starlet and in need of a paint makeover. She spent the most recent portion of her hard-working life alone in a remote gravel pit in the Maine woods within an hour of Bangor.
As you can see by the dwarfing of Caleb in the cab, this Michigan is an enormous machine. The bucket is in excellent condition and holds 4.5 yards of gravel and can easily lift over 11,000 pounds of payload. Given its size, the Payloader requires special permits for road travel. We negotiated a delivered-to-Aroostook price and fortunately for all, the seller had a friend-with-a-lowboy-trailer-who-owed-him-a-favor. Three days after we cut the deal, Caleb backed the Michigan off the lowboy into our yard. We’ve already used it to haul a lot of local gravel and to move mountains of rocks.
In this modern age of consolidation, Michigan is no stranger to family upheaval. In 1953 Clark Forkllift bought out Michigan, though the name remained unchanged. Going international, Volvo bought out Clark in 1985. We have yet to notice any Swedish affectation. Caleb, Megan & Jim
MORSE FARM, BOOTFOOT ROAD, BRIDGWATER, MAINE. Circa 1969. Looking northwest, the farm of Doss (nickname of 'Joshua' pronounced "Josh-shew-way," born 1899) and Etta Sharpe Morse (b.1900) was cleared from the North Maine Woods by the Sharpes about 120 years ago. Doss & Etta were our good and close neighbors.
By the mid-1970s the large barn was no longer there and the squarish two-story portion of the house on the south was no longer used. Typical of farmers in their era they had a diversified farm, grew oats, hay and 6 acres of potatoes and a big garden, and kept horses, pigs and cows. Butter was made from the cream and sold to the local general store and the income helped pay property taxes. Horses were feed hay and oats. Pigs were fed the separated skim milk combined with oats.
The last animal they owned was a favorite twelve or fourteen year old Holstein cow who had lost all her teeth and lived on pasture, hay and ground oats. Doss milked her for several years after her last calf. In time her useful life came to an end and Jim helped Doss butcher her. Because there is no waste on a farm she ended up being ground beef for home consumption.
Etta passed in the Fall of 1984 and Doss followed ten or twelve years later. The last buildings were torn down a couple decades ago. Today the Morse farm is a beautiful Timothy hay farm. cut every year by Ryan Bradstreet, their great grandson. Caleb, Megan & Jim
MEETING FARMER WENDELL BERRY FOR THE FIRST TIME. Circa 1978. That Fall, Wendell Berry was Keynote speaker at the MOFGA (Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association) 'Common Ground Country Fair' at the fairgrounds in the small central Maine town of Litchfield. This was the second Common Ground Fair ever, the first occurring just one year prior. Wendell gave his Keynote in the afternoon – memorable for potatoes and Peru – in a sprawling venue with bleachers.
Since Wendell was in town, fair organizers decided to make the best of his visit by also arranging a home grown breakfast with Wendell and 50 Maine farmers in an intimate setting. The dilemma of figuring out who would attend was decentralized and equitably solved by allotting two place settings per county. Because of Aroostook County's large size it was offered four seats.
Word circulated but the impracticality of a 7am breakfast for farmers in distant Aroostook was not missed by anyone. On a lark Jim got ahold of his friend, Stu, across the line and farming in Debec, New Brunswick, Canada. They weighed the logistics and fortunately had enough wisdom to understand this was a rare opportunity too good to pass up.
They agreed to meet in Houlton at 230am. Jim got up at half-past-one, quickly milked the cow and met Stu, who to this day has the admirable habit of always being on time. They traveled most of the remaining 200 miles on the newly opened southbound two-lanes of I-95. They made good time, didn't get lost and arrived with fifteen minutes to spare.
Inside a meeting room, the farmers and Wendell loaded up their plates with piles of organic bacon, eggs and potatoes. After awhile, Wendell got up and spoke to the group for most of a half-hour. It was evident to all that Wendell was in his element speaking to this small, focused group of fellow farmers.
Then it was the farmers' turn to speak and channel the discussion. There is no doubt most of the farmers in the room had been reading Wendell's recently released epic work, 'The Unsettling of America.' One farmer, only half-joking said that as he read the book he heard the words as if spoken in a Maine accent. Because the other farmers were in the same boat as well, the light-hearted comment generated an immediate roomful of laughter which included Wendell and his deep Kentucky drawl. Caleb, Megan & Jim
THANKS TO THE CONTAINER-GARDENING-REVOLUTION YOU CAN GROW POTATOES ALMOST ANYWHERE. All you need is love (light)!
A valuable article from potato-savvy Scotland (heraldscotland dot com/news/19022725.small-space-gardening-grow-pots-potatoes/) reminds us that you don't have to own a plot of land to grow potatoes. Potatoes are a fun 'house plant' – easy to grow when a container is placed on a balcony or even in a sunny window.
Years ago solid research identified our variety 'Elba' (woodprairie dot com/product/organic-certified-elba-seed-potatoes/) as a TOP potato producer for burgeoning container gardening Caleb, Megan & Jim
"Think you can only grow potatoes if you have a large vegetable plot or allotment? Think again.
"Even if you only have room for a 30cm pot on your balcony or terrace, you can still enjoy a few home-grown spuds….
"Some containers are better than others. You can now get grow bags specifically designed for them, or use old compost bags, or a half barrel…
"But the bigger the pot, the bigger the yield."
SHELLING ORGANIC SEED CORN ON WOOD PRAIRIE FAMILY FARM. One fact the old timers knew was that the highest quality seed corn comes from kernels which dry down on the cob. Corn cob harvest does require a more labor intensive technique of getting cobs from the field and then drying down the cobs under-shelter.
When the kernels have completely shriveled and dried down to a moisture level of 11% they are ready to be "shelled" or removed from the cob. For this job we use an antique heavy "Corn Sheller" which began its life as a human-powered machine. Its heavy cast iron flywheel effectively develops and maintains the significant momentum needed to gently twist off kernels-from-cob without damaging the seed growing point.
By adding a belt and pulley we were able to convert our sheller over to a one-horsepower electric motor. In rapid-fire succession, corn cobs can be fed into the top hole one-by-one as fast as hands will work. Kernels are efficiently separated from cobs: kernels get dispensed through a screened exit hole while spent cobs travel down a shaking chute into an awaiting box.
The germination rate on our carefully handled organic corn is typically 99%.
In this photo, Ken is shelling our delicious heirloom open-pollinated Sweet Corn variety 'Dorinny.' Caleb, Megan & Jim woodprairie dot com/product/sweet-corn-seed-organic-dorinny-heirloom/
BIG LOAD OF PINE SAW LOGS, NORTHWESTERN AROOSTOOK COUNTY'S UNORGANIZED TERRITORY, MAINE. Circa 1978. The location of this logging operation was isolated Ramsey Brook, west of Deboullie Lake and the State of Maine's Deboullie Public Reserved Land. This area is northwest of the small town of Portage on Route 11.
The Mack truck was one from John Cobb's trucking company. The trucker was Clyde Eastman, Sr. Clyde went by the CB radio handle "7-11."
Thanks to Corrine Routhier for posting. Caleb, Megan & Jim
REMEMBERING AROOSTOOK POTATO FARMER DUANE GRASS. Local residents are mourning the Covid-related loss of life-long potato farmer Duane Grass who in his late 70s still actively farmed with his son, Kevin, in nearby Mars Hill.
For many years Duane was also a reliable school bus driver for Central Aroostook High School, which included hauling 'Panther' athletes to away games. Many years ago Kevin had been advisor to CAHS's FFA (Future Farmers of America) chapter. Reflecting their commitment to community, the Grasses generously donated 7 acres of potato production every year to fund local FFA activities.
In growing less than 200 acres of french fry potatoes for McCain's they were a smaller yet very conscientious operation. At the 2019 Annual McCain's Grower Banquet, Duane and Keven were awarded First Place in the 'field delivery' category. Pictured in the photo from that event below, Duane is sitting third from left in the green shirt (fiddleheadfocus dot com/2019/09/05/news/community/lajoie-farms-receives-champion-grower-nod/).
Duane was one of the of the last remaining old-school farmers left in our local area. He was very down-to-earth, kind and approachable. Duane was a friend to many and will be missed by all.
A few years back, at a winter CAHS Basketball home game, Jim sat next to Duane, and of course, in between the action they talked about potatoes and farming.
The previous growing year before had been dry – hampering tuber bulking and limiting yields for short- and mid-season varieties. However, the rains returned early enough in September to REALLY size up late-season Russet Burbanks destined for the french fry factory. In a rare stroke of luck, french-fry growers were forced to scramble to find adequate storage for the all-of-a-sudden bumper crop.
During the game's half-time, Duane related how experience helped them decide how to handle the year's extraordinary yield. With every bin filled to capacity they still had 10-15 acres of Burbanks left to dig. Fresh in Duane's mind had been a similar overflowing, bumper crop 25-30 years earlier. That year they readied an old-style underground potato house and filled it with their surplus potatoes. Not untypical of a bumper crop year, they were never able to find a buyer for all those extra spuds. What's more, next year he and Kevin spent "all summer" shoveling out BY HAND the potatoes in that cramped potato house which had no capacity for modern mechanization. Painful as the decision was in this most recent Fall, informed by old-time know-how, they decided to leave those last acres of potatoes in the field undug. Caleb, Megan & Jim