As long as I have lived in Maine, potato harvest has always been the most exciting time of year for me as a photographer. It's the culmination of the entirety of our short growing season, when we finally get to see the work that's been happening under the soil. Raking autumn light saturates the fields and draws a stark contrast into long shadows. The brief time frame and the number of hands needed to work the crews send the farm into a flurry. Seeing the sheer quantity of food pouring from trucks into storage eases the famine anxiety I seem to have inherited from my Irish and Eastern European ancestors. Most of all, I love watching the procession of the tractors, trailers, bins, and the harvester with its rattling conveyors creeping down the long lines until dusk.
Geneva and Everett Goranson began harvesting potatoes in Dresden in 1960. Located on a peninsula between the Kennebec and Eastern Rivers, their new farm was a stark contrast from the rocky soils they had left behind in northern Aroostook County. They made their living on spuds until their youngest daughter Jan and her partner Rob started working the land together in 1986. Over the next ten years, they evolved from a conventional potato farm to a diversified organic vegetable farm. The earthworms came back. They had two boys who grew up to work on the farm. They became one of the biggest organic farms in the state, and one of the first CSAs in the northeast. But they still use Everett and Geneva's equipment, especially at harvest time.
Here is Maria Escobar on her way down to the potato field in one of their old trucks. This was her eleventh potato harvest working at Goranson Farm.
A 1972 IH 1066 pulls a '76 Lockwood potato harvester through the last bed of potatoes.
Maria Escobar pulls rocks and weeds from the potatoes as they ascend the conveyor.
Maria's-eye-view of just-dug Kennebecs.
Rob Johanson manages the entire potato crop with thirty years of ever-evolving experience. The process is a year-long cycle: seeds are selected during harvest, saved in storage, and then split and planted in the spring. Then it's a matter of controlling fertility, water, weeds, and bugs. Rob spends many summer afternoons on the tractor in the potatoes spreading organic fertilizers, hilling the plants, and cultivating out weeds. In dry years he keeps irrigation pumping. He battles the plants' predators (mostly beetles) with torches, bars, and biological compounds. Then he kills all the plants and leaves them in the field to allow the potatoes to set their skins. Finally, in September, he arranges for space in storage, prepares the bins, trucks, and machinery, and harvest begins at the end of the month.
This year, they attached storage bins directly to the arm of the harvester. Other years they drive a bulk body truck alongside to catch the potatoes.
The last lines of cleaned Kennebecs proceed up the arm towards the bin.
My first potato harvest was on a large-scale conventional seed potato farm in Aroostook County. They had multiple modern harvesters and bulk trucks working at once, all day, every day for two weeks. There is such a demand for extra hands on the crew that many high schools still close for those two weeks, and teenagers work the grading lines. There were five varieties of potatoes.
Being a diversified farm now, Goranson Farm's potato crop is much smaller, but they grow more than ten varieties of potatoes each year. As with their other vegetables, biodiversity in crops and variety contributes to pest and disease resistance, soil health, marketability, and allows for continued experimenting. Careful stewardship of the soil is essential to organic potato growing, as the plants are highly susceptible to beetles and fungi above the ground, and scab and rot diseases underground.
Once they're out of the field, bins of potatoes are stacked in an earth-bermed storage cooler. Throughout the rest of the fall and winter, the crew will brush, grade, and repack the potatoes for three markets, wholesale orders, and monthly CSA shares. By early summer, there will be new potatoes to start digging again.