‘Tater’ takes a trip into the past

16 years ago

    CARIBOU – There was a time in Aroostook County when nearly everyone was a farmer, and nearly everyone raised potatoes. Picking potatoes at harvest break in “The County” was a rite of passage.

Image    Contributed Photos
    Caley Doody, 16, planned to use her potato picking money to buy a cell phone. She is a student at Caribou High School.

    During the 1930s to 1940s, there were 6,000 farms in Aroostook where handpicking of potatoes could be found, but today that number has shrunk to about 10. With the knowledge that potato pickers are in danger of becoming extinct, county-based filmmaker Brenda Jepson decided to capture this tradition on tape. The result is an hour-long documentary called “Tater Raisin’ Folk.”
    “I knew that there were fewer farms handpicking today, but when the Maine Potato Board informed me that only 1 to 2 percent of farms in Aroostook still have handpicking crews, I knew I had to make this film,” said Jepson.
    Realizing that there is more to potato growing than just the harvest, Jepson decided to start filming in the spring at planting time.
    “The perfect place to shoot those scenes was at Gerristens’ Wood Prairie Organic Farm in Bridgewater,” said Jepson, “because the whole family is involved, just as they were on farms years ago.”
    Phil Nadeau’s farm in Frenchville is featured during spraying time and shows him operating his 1952 Farmall M tractor pulling a cypress barrel sprayer made in 1945.
    “A visit to Phil’s is always an adventure because he is constantly inventing ways to repair his old equipment,” said Jepson.
    The Fort Fairfield Potato Blossom Festival, shown in another scene, illustrates how farming families celebrate their crops with a parade, mashed potato wrestling and potato recipe contest.
    “We also discovered the Little Potato Boy, now aged 79,” said Jepson, “and captured his story of being chosen by a New York advertising agency to promote Maine spuds.”
    “Potato Pickers Special,” an early morning television show, now in it 48th year, has always played a role in recruiting pickers for the farms, so Jepson featured a segment of this long-running program in her film.
    “Our show may hold a record nationwide for longevity,” said Don Flannery, executive director of the Maine Potato Board. “Maybe we should get Guinness in to find out!”
    At harvest time, Jepson, with help from her husband, Alan, who potato farmed with his father until 1985, visited five different farms to record handpicking. They returned to Wood Prairie Farm and to Phil Nadeau’s, but she and Alan also shot scenes at Charlie Smith’s Farm in Houlton, made famous by the large wooden bear adorning his roadside stand; Dan Stewart’s Family Farm in Presque Isle, where teens pick potatoes under the watchful eye of Dan and his faithful friend, Rex, a German shepherd; and Clayton Patrick’s Farm in Woodland where pickers use old barrels – some made in the forties.
    “I was truly humbled making this film,” said Jepson. “These families work so incredibly hard and they give so much of themselves to their communities.”
    Inspired by the frenzied activities Jepson witnessed during this year’s potato harvest, she set to work herself and in record speed has completed her one-hour documentary in time for viewing at Thanksgiving.
    “It seemed the right time of year to spare a thought for these Tater Raisin’ Folk,” she said.
    “Tater Raisin’ Folk” will be available beginning Nov. 24 as a calendar/DVD combined with an Aroostook County 2009 Calendar, or as a single DVD at stores countywide or on Jepson’s Web site at www.crownofmaineproductions.com. For more information, contact Brenda Jepson at 207-896-3416.

Image    Contributed Photos
    Collin Patterson, 12, picks potatoes at Clayton Patrick’s Farm. He planned to use his earned funds to purchace new ATV tires.