Missing the ‘Potato Break’

FLORENCEVILLE-BRISTOL, N.B. – In Carleton County, New Brunswick, the currency is potatoes. It’s a $130-million industry that satisfies a third of the world’s craving for french fries.

About 50,000 acres of potatoes are harvested in the province; 20,000 in North Carleton County alone.

It’s an industry that needs lots of workers. For almost a century, students in the county got a break from school in the fall, to work in the potato fields.

It was coined, the Potato Break.

“It is good honest work, hard work,”said Iain Dunlop, of Potatoes NB. “I’ve never seen anyone that was worse for wear for developing worth ethic when they were young.”

The Potato Break was used in other maritime communities, but it’s long since gone. Except at Carleton North High School.

Up until last year, students went to school in August, and broke for two weeks in late September. But the school district ended it in 2012.

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“When something is a part of your community for that long, it has to be felt by the entire community,” Dunlop said.

It’s a loss that’s certainly felt among the farmers. The need for workers during the harvest hasn’t ceased.

“I don’t know why they cancelled it, it’s a government issue. Anyway, it’s done, it won’t be back. It’s a history deal. It’s too bad, because a lot of the students don’t mind working,” said Martin Guest, a potato farmer in the County.

In 2011, about 200 students worked on the harvest from Carleton North. Guest hired about four or five of them.

Now, the school district has put in place the “Potato Harvest Enhancement Plan” – students can apply and take a leave from school to work in the field, but school will continue.

Still, 88 students applied this year.

“I had one student this year, and it worked out fine. He called me, he wanted the job. He was just 14, that was a bit young but I gave him a chance, and he came and did an excellent job,” said Guest.

That student was Jacob Dugan.

“It was good to be outside, not inside, trapped in school and out doing work.”

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Dugan said he wants to apply to work on the harvest again next year. But now, has to concentrate on catching up on the time he missed, something the district helps the students with.

As for filling the gap of workers still needed to harvest all those potatoes, Dunlop is one of two who works on a Potato Harvest Hotline through Potatoes NB.

People call the hotline looking to work on the harvest, and Dunlop connects them with a farm and finds them accommodations.

“Particularly in the area served by Carleton North High School, we’ve had many more orders than in the past,” he said.

And while this is filling the gap, the concern is that the money no longer stays in the County.

“When you lose something, you don’t often get it back. So we find other ways and keep going,” Dunlop said.