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Three score and ten or more

Friday, January 20, 2006



I suppose that rural states are much alike, and that during a large part of the past hundred years rural children have been an important part of the economy. At one time, children may have picked oranges in California, strawberries and oranges in Florida, tobacco in Georgia (I know this was true, my children did it.), etc.

I was raised in Idaho, and in Idaho, one of the things children did was pick potatoes. I don’t remember what was the youngest age, but during my childhood, school in South Eastern Idaho was dismissed for two or three weeks every year for potato harvest. My memory isn’t clear whether we were dismissed from elementary school or not, (I think we were) but we certainly were dismissed from Jr. High and High School when it was time to harvest spuds.

The actual date varied from year to year. Most of us don’t really think about ripe or green potatoes, but we are partly aware when we go to the supermarket. The white and red potatoes that have very soft (sometimes peeling) skins are unripe. We usually call them “new” potatoes. Ripe potatoes are mealier, have tougher skins, and store much better. Potatoes don’t ripen until the vines are dead. The major killing of vines was caused by frost. Spud vacation (which is what we called it) came about two or three weeks after the first killing frost. (Before my career-if that’s what you can call it- in the potatoes ended, many farmers were killing their vines on schedule by using a machine that mechanically beat the leave off the vines)

Many kids didn’t choose to work in the fields, but people like me, whose parents were workers in factories and on the railroad, and who wanted a little extra spending money (or in some cases, food money) were hot to get into the fields. On the first weekday of “vacation” those who wanted work reported either to certain schools or to the State Dept. of Labor.

One simply volunteered to go with a specific farmer. I suspect that there were labor forms or parental consent forms to be signed, but I don’t remember them. After the first year in the fields, most kids had identified the places they wanted to work. The farms owned and managed by Japanese farmers (the Jap farms, as they were called) were among the most preferred because they had better potatoes and fewer weeds. One farmer named Zimmerli was also high on the list for the same reason . He also had many farms and stored his own potatoes, so you could work for him for the entire vacation. Another place that was traditionally a good place to work was on the Fort Hall Indian reservation, or out in Chubbuck (sp.) or Tyhee.

When you were picked, you went out to the farm. Transportation varied. Sometimes you just piled into the back of a truck, but many were taken by school bus, which I assume were rented from the school district. Newcomers were taught the ropes, the rest of us just went to assigned rows, and away we went. Picking was done into baskets (I don’t know how to describe the size, but they were the same wherever you went). Two baskets dumped into a burlap bag made what was called a “half sack”. I understand that the two baskets together made about sixty to seventy pounds of potatoes. You were paid six, or six and one half cents a “half sack”. A really good worker, with experience, could make twenty bucks a day. That equates to about three hundred forty or so bags of spuds. We always had some “professionals” (usually Mexicans or Indians of “whatever’ legality) in the field, some of whom wore a harness and picked directly into the bag, which dragged along behind them. One of them, if I remember correctly picked over four hundred bags in one day. The average school student, working hard, did pretty well to get a hundred, but six and half bucks was a lot in a time when candy bars were a nickel, comic books a dime, and the Saturday matinee at the movies nine cents. As you were picking, you were expected to “cull out” (toss between the rows) potatoes that had been cut in half by the potato digger, that were off shaped (a lot of little head fasten to a center) or otherwise not likely to sell as Idaho number ones. Some times there were rotten ones which were likely to be thrown at any one who was not bigger or faster than you were. In some “crumby” fields real potato fights broke out (quickly squelched by supervisors). A rotten potato in the field is not like one in the pantry. Some of them could be broken in half and you might have a gooey strand of white starch two feet long. Getting hit in the back of the neck by one of these was not one of life’s great experiences. On the other hand, they usually let you go back after the field was finished and pick up a bag of culls and take them home, which please your mother no end.

As you got older, you might be picked to “buck” spuds which meant to pick up the half sacks and load them on a flat bed truck, or to ride the truck and stack the sacks of potatoes.. The trucks carried the spuds to a “spud cellar” which was really a big, long, hole, dug into the ground and roofed over by the dirt dug out. Some of them were very large, most were mechanized. The trucks backed up to the cellar, and the “buckers” (who were paid by the hour, rather than the sack) dumped the potatoes into a hopper from which they went on a treadmill to a sorting table, and after being sorted they were bagged ready for storage or shipment. Almost everything involved in picking a potato from picking, to preparing for the market was done in one day. Along the way, I had experience in almost every step. I am sorry, but I didn’t have any real adventures while doing this except for occasionally falling off the “bucking” truck. Oh Well.

Today, most of the picking is done with a combine that dumps the potatoes directly into a truck. Many, but not all, of the old potato cellars have been replaced by temperature controlled storage buildings. Potatoes are still potatoes, and I love ‘em, (as you could tell by my girth) I suppose that there were some child labor laws that were treated most flexibly, but I am convinced that a good bit of hard physical labor (occasionally) would be a good thing for most kids today.

I will try to get into thinning, weeding and harvesting sugar beets in the future, but I haven’t even dealt with all my railroad stories yet.


At 1:10 PM, Blogger Patrick Joubert Conlon said...

I am convinced that a good bit of hard physical labor (occasionally) would be a good thing for most kids today.

Couldn't agree more. Great story as usual.

At 4:00 PM, Anonymous Kathleen said...

I really love your stories! More, more!

At 5:11 AM, Blogger Saur♥Kraut said...

I really love these stories. And I adore new potatoes! With butter, salt and a little freshly ground pepper! Mmmm.

Do they have u-pick farms, too? Down here we do. We have areas where you're allowed to go in and pick your own strawberries or blueberries (I don't know of any u-pick orange farms, though).

This reminds me of when I lived in Sweden, and gives me an idea for another good story in MY blog. Thanks!

At 7:06 AM, Blogger Three Score and Ten or more said...

Thanks Patrick, (interesting new picture)
Saur, The best place for new potatoes is in a lowcountry boil, with shrimp, cajun spices, corn on the cobb,pearl onions and chunks of Polish sausage, but they are okay otherwise too, of course.

At 2:13 AM, Blogger Norma said...

Ah the memories. I grew up in Illinois and detasseling corn was a job for teens--maybe still is. Worst, smelliest, hottest, coldest, wettest job I ever had in my life. But it paid twice what a 14 year old could get for babysitting.

Great story. Combined with milk, the potato is the perfect food and its a powerhouse of nutrition even standing alone.

At 3:47 PM, Blogger The Appalachianist said...

LOL, no offense but you talking of working on Idaho Potatoe feilds makes me think of Napolean Dynamite working on a Chicken Farm trying to raise money to go on a date.

In my Grand Parents time it was Beans. Picking Beans meant they had money. Like my Grandmother said, everyone wanted to pick Beans.

A kid could clean barnes on a Dairy when we lived in SC.

With what Agriculture is left it's mainly work left to Mexicans. It's sad.

Don't fear, some of the fellars I hunted with this year are heading down to Georgia to give you releif from the Hogs.

At 4:43 PM, Blogger jgf said...

Nothing like physical labor to appreciate a paycheck!

At 8:36 AM, Blogger Happy Gilmores said...

My daughter goes to BYU-Idaho in Rexburg, so I've seen all those wonderful tater fields. Pocatello is a nice looking place with the mountains. I like mountains. The flats are kinda boring in East Idaho, unless you like sand dunes.


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