Vagneur: Driving lessons during potato harvest |

Vagneur: Driving lessons during potato harvest

When my daughter was 5, we’d feed the horses together in the winter. She’d drive and I’d throw the hay off the back of our pickup truck. We didn’t think it was a big deal; in fact it sort of came naturally, a young girl standing up on the seat behind the steering wheel, listening to her father yell out the directions, “Turn right” or “Turn left.” Naturally, I had to pay attention and jump in the truck when we’d hit the end of the feed ground, putting a stop to our forward progress. She’s been driving ever since and is an excellent driver.

It was a little different when I was 5. We fed the horses and cows off of a feed sled pulled by a team of draft horses. It took the better part of the morning to get the job done, so I never got to go during the week and, when the weekend came, I was busy skiing on Little Nell. But I didn’t get left out of the early-age driving experiences.

My turn came during the potato harvest. Just as in a garden, potatoes are planted in rows, just longer than behind your house, rows that sometimes cover 5, 10 or 15 acres. Good farmers spend all summer watering and weeding those rows, nurturing what they hope is a good crop, and after the vines freeze in the fall, it’s harvest time.

It’s much more modern now, but guys like Romeo Pelletier, who grew up farming potatoes in Maine, will tell you it’s still a lot of work. With a potato digger that left the freshly dug spuds lying on top of the ground, vines separated from the tubers, it was up to a crew of potato pickers who, on hands and knees, would toss the buggers into steel baskets as they worked the row.

Two pickers worked side-by-side, each on a separate row so that when their baskets got full they’d be emptied into a single burlap sack. Then the pickers would each head up their respective rows, filling up the baskets once again. There are several great blues tunes written about “throwing out the row,” stories of men and women who work in the fields. Aspen High School would close down for a week during the potato harvest, allowing students to earn some money while helping out the local ranchers.

Anyway, once it looked like a truckload of spuds had been picked, it was time to fire up the 1948 Diamond T and haul the potatoes to the cellar for further processing. Propitiously, someone had to drive the truck along the row of burlap bags, about half filled from the two baskets-full they contained. Depending on the size of the field, it might take two or more trips to fill up the truck.

Since I was always hanging around, being in the way or otherwise obtrusive, my dad put me to work driving the truck. All I had to do was keep it going straight, not hit any burlap sacks, and I soon learned to sometimes hit the horn to remind my dad that we were very near the end of the row. Standing up on the seat as I was, I couldn’t stop the beast from going into the ditch at the end. Or sometimes I had to hit the horn when the soft dirt pulled the wheel one way or the other and my small arms weren’t strong enough to pull it back to straight (no power steering). I learned the very basic rudiments of driving that way.

We’d take the truckload of potatoes to the cellar, where two or three men would haul them inside and dump them in one of several cordoned-off sections. This would continue until all of the tubers were at last hauled in and then the sorting would begin.

The potatoes were organized, according to size and quality, on a long, moving steel belt that allowed dirt and other impurities to fall through. Hired hands and ranch wives generally operated this machinery while my dad funneled the potatoes into large burlap sacks situated over a scale. When full, each bag weighed 100 pounds. My dad would switch a lever, sending the spuds to an empty sack while he sewed the full one together using a long, silver needle. Then we shipped them to points beyond by rail.

There was a lot going on, and a kid was generally unappreciated due to the heavy nature of the work, but when it came time to drive the truck, I always grabbed the wheel before I was asked.

I went on to drive farm tractors (still do), tractor-trailers, bulldozers, front-end loaders, dump trucks and about anything else that needed driven. For a number of years, I was a defensive driving instructor, as well. It gets in your blood.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at

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