By Jordan Kaye
Idaho State Journal
GRACE — Gage Stoddard woke up around 5 a.m. on the morning of Sept. 24. He hopped out of bed, laced his new shoes, got into his 1995 Chevy Silverado and drove into the darkness of rural Caribou County.
There were only a few streetlights lit when he rolled into the nearby Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, opening the gym doors with a key his uncle had given him.
There was a long day ahead for the Grace High School student athlete and no time to waste.
Grace School District, which includes two elementary schools and Grace Junior/Senior High, is one of a handful of districts in the Gem State that annually receives two weeks off so that parents, faculty and students can all work the potato harvest.
For students like Stoddard who participate in harvest, the "break" means hard labor from sunup until sundown.
Stoddard grabbed his basketball and began an early morning shooting routine, putting up a few hundred shots in an hour before returning home at 6:30 a.m. for a quick shower and a brief nap until a text woke him up.
Stoddard again hopped in his Silverado, this time sporting a red Grace High basketball hoodie, blue jeans that he tucked into cowboy boots and a black and white fitted hat bearing the logo of his destination: Stoddard Farms.
The family farm was already buzzing at 7:16 a.m. when Stoddard arrived. There was a semi-truck parked out front, and it wouldn’t leave until 800 50-pound bags of potatoes were deposited in the back.
Right now, along with a gang of kids of all ages, filling it was Stoddard’s job.
The littlest kids could vanish under the size of the bags, struggling to lug sacks of starch that tipped the scales at a little more than half of their body weight.
The older kids with more mature bodies used strength and technique that made it obvious this wasn’t their first time slinging spuds. Stoddard eventually joined them, hauling sack after sack until the truck drove off.
Like Stoddard, most of the others play sports as well.
“All 33 of my athletes, all of them work in potatoes,” said Brandon Sanchez, Grace High’s football coach.
“They’re all out at a farm working,” added Stoddard, a football and basketball standout at Grace who’s hoping for a college hoops scholarship.
It’s not fun work. They all know that. But, then again, is the alternative really much better?
Stoddard, like most of the kids lugging potatoes, knows he’ll be back in school in a week’s time.
And, suddenly, in the midst of the sweat pouring down his neck, or his back tensing up like an icicle, or his tired eye, “And then I’m thinking, ‘Oh, I could be listening to my English teacher talking about syllables or something,'" Stoddard said. “I’d rather be playing with potatoes than playing with words.”
Travis Draper leans against the padded wall on the south side of Grace High’s gym. The first-year Grace athletic director is still in the same outfit — shorts and a black Under Armour polo — he donned more than 12 hours earlier, when the temperature was 20 degrees cooler, the sun was still on the horizon and more than 2,000 bags of potatoes at Stoddard Farms still had to be moved into cars.
Waiting on Thursday night’s varsity volleyball game to begin, he tries to contextualize how important the harvest is to the community. What it means to Grace’s economy and to its people and to its reputation.
Then he stops.
“There’s our principal over there in the red shirt,” Draper says, pointing. “He has to run the scoreboard tonight because the person who usually does it is still working in the fields.”
For two weeks every September, that’s Principal Stephen Brady’s only job.
“Probably 60 percent of our student body will either be working in potatoes or babysitting for somebody who’s working in potatoes,” said Brady, who for the 23rd straight harvest drove potato trucks for nearby Christensen Farms.
The logistics of a two-week school hiatus are fairly simple. The school board sets a tentative date each year, guessing when the harvest will start. By September, the Grace Seed Growers Association has given the school board a firm start date.
This year, because of the hot summer, the tentative date moved up and school let out on Sept. 16 for a Sept. 30 return.
The city's youth and adults alike spend two weeks on potato farms making money. Stoddard Farms usually starts hiring kids around age 14 and pays them $9.50 an hour, which — if they work the normal 65 to 70 hours a week during the harvest break — could net them more than a grand in no time.
“Harvest is really important for a lot of the families and kids around here,” said Jeremy Stoddard, co-owner of Stoddard Farms and Gage Stoddard’s father. “There’s not a lot of jobs (for kids), so this is their best opportunity to make money to pay for school clothes or school fees (to play sports).”
Gage Stoddard’s brown boots dip into the tin of water that sits just outside cellar No. 2 at Stoddard Farms, a precaution to keep the potatoes clean and disease-free. He’s flanked by his dad and uncles Jason and Jordan, and the quartet is chuckling as they bask in the sight of, really, their own naivety.
They forgot how crazy their operation is.
Their whole life has been this farm, ever since Gage Stoddard’s great-grandfather, Frank, rented 160 acres of land in 1957. Since then, it’s grown to nearly 4,600 acres with 40 different fields and six of those cellars, each of which holds 8 million pounds of spuds.
The vastness of the operation isn’t shocking anymore. The conveyor belts that whisk millions of pounds of potatoes past grabby hands and ping-ponging eyes seem like the only rational way to move potatoes.
Inside their potato cellar, a machine that resembles a wood-chipper spits out tubers, creating a potato Mt. Everest. Panchito Cortez controls the rapid-fire conveyor belt with a joystick, displaying the concentration of a gamer on level 20 of Pac-Man.
For a second, Stoddard tells Cortez he’ll take over.
He takes a few steps left and gets his hands on the joystick that’s attached to the red conveyor belts. He explains how all the pieces work, tries to plateau the tower of dirt-laden potatoes and inadvertently shows how normal this all is to him.
And that’s what outsiders have a tough time fathoming. Really, they get two weeks off school for, what, a potato harvest? Is that really necessary?
“It’s really important and, luckily, our school board and school administrators understand how important it is. We couldn't get it done in the time we need to without the community’s help,” Jeremy Stoddard said. “If we didn’t have those people to do it, it would take us — I don’t even know how long. A couple months?”
Perhaps the “Famous Potatoes” tagline on the bottom of Idaho license plates should sufficiently explain the cachet potatoes hold in the Gem State.
But when Sara Anderson tries to explain the harvest to her club volleyball teammates from Logan, Utah, it’s like she’s reading line-by-line from the U.S. tax code.
“They’re always like, ‘What!? You’re off school?’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, for two weeks. I just work,’” Anderson, a senior libero on the Grace volleyball team, said. “They’re like, ‘Do you go pick potatoes out of the field?’” I’m like, ‘Not quite.’”
Instead, Anderson, like most of the women working on the farm, stands up on a metal platform seven to 10 hours a day, one of the first sets of eyes to watch the potato truck dump a new batch onto the conveyor belt.
And with her headphones in — usually playing music, podcasts or books — Anderson picks rocks and dirt clods out of the river of potatoes.
That’s one of four main jobs that the kids working at Stoddard Farms take up. During harvest, the farm boosts its employee count from 18 to about 45.
The additional help like Anderson is crucial in picking out dirt clods, loading and unloading potatoes at the market, bagging the potatoes off the conveyor belt and separating the seed potatoes.
The small spuds the Stoddards store in the cellar are sold to commercial farms, which use them as seed. Potatoes that are over 12 ounces, which are too big for seed, are bagged and sold in bulk.
Separating potatoes and picking out dirt isn’t exactly a physically demanding job, but it’s not an ideal gig for the queasy.
It’s shocking those doing it don’t keep Dramamine (a motion sickness medicine) handy or set an empty bucket nearby just in case. Five minutes of watching potatoes whiz by and you’ll feel like you just log-rolled down a grass hill.
The experienced members of Stoddard Farms are easy to spot. The efficient ones don’t keep their eyes upstream, instead focusing on the few inches in front of them, spotting dirt clods or massive potatoes like they’re gold. Secondly, they’re wearing some sort of face covering.
Grace volleyball player Jillian Smith wore a cloth mask with plastic goggles that may as well have been taken from biology class. This isn’t a COVID precaution but, rather, an innovation against the constant stream of dirt and dust that inevitably finds uncovered crevices.
On Sept. 24, Stoddard’s little brother, Boston, stood near his mom and brother, separating potatoes for about 10 seconds before drawing ire for picking spuds smaller than his hand.
“What are we making?” Stoddard asked his little brother, pausing a second while trying to think of a good punch line. “Tater tots?”
Boston shrugged it off and went back to bagging potatoes. He taped up a full 50-pound paper sack and bent down. The bag was to be placed on a trailer just a few feet off the ground, where a young man stood egging on the 9-year-old, reminding everyone within shouting distance that, just a day prior, Boston got the bag on his shoulder before he tipped over.
This time he hucked it on his shoulder and stumbled a few steps before someone held him upright. He threw it on the trailer and bragged like he just knocked out Mike Tyson.
“Kids find ways to have fun in everything they do,” Gage said. “But with 800 potato sacks, there’s not much you can do to make that fun.”
Draper is walking away from the varsity volleyball game late Thursday, sneaking out the back door to check up on the junior high football game that he quickly realizes has already concluded.
A stream of parents and kids still in uniform are walking to their cars, and the athletic director starts pointing out faces he recognizes. “He worked with us this morning. He worked with us.”
He walks down to the empty football field, folds his arms on the chain-linked fence and stares off into the lights of Grace’s football field. The dew-laden grass is lit by the moon and moving lights off in the distance, produced by the tractors still going.
Draper looks past the metal bleachers and out to the darkened fields that sprawl like the ocean, his eyes deadpan staring at Grace’s lifeblood. He has just walked past nearly a half-dozen sullen junior high football players, and he knows the football game they just played wasn’t the toughest part of their day.
It reminds him of the movie, “Remember the Titans.”
“When they’re like, ‘Those other schools don’t have to do what we’re doing,’” Draper said. “Someone should come up with a speech about potato harvest like that.”
Back inside, Grace’s volleyball coach Heidi Stoddard (Gage’s mom and Jeremy’s wife) is sitting on the bleachers, looking through the stats of a 3-0 loss to Bear Lake, her alma mater. The loss isn't sitting well but, after all, it’s harvest.
“Sometimes our win-loss record during the potato harvest isn’t the best,” Brady said.
Added Sanchez: “Historically, the games during harvest are typically our toughest games … We have 6 a.m. practices every day and then at 8 a.m. I turn them loose and they work all day long.”
Two Fridays ago, Grace played Challis, which meant pulling the football players off the farm early for a five-hour bus ride to what would become a 46-6 victory. Some think the five hours of sleep helped.
Last week, the junior varsity volleyball team lost. Draper asked what happened. Turns out, most of the team was up until 2 a.m. picking potatoes.
Sanchez remembered a player who suffered a concussion during harvest. How’d he get it? A buddy chucked a 50-pound bag of potatoes at him.
There are downsides, of course. Fatigue has consequences. But these kids are helping their town. And, without potatoes, there’s no Grace.
But, more than that, there’s the bigger picture every parent, student and farmer believes in — that the early mornings, the exhaustive repetition of their jobs and the balancing act of spending 12 hours a day working on a potato farm before playing in a game will be beneficial at some point.
That when life gets tough, they’ll remember working harvest and, suddenly, it won’t be as tough.
“It just helps the kids,” Jeremy Stoddard said. “When they get through it and when they look back, they can say, ‘Hey, I did that,’ and it can give them some confidence and some mental strength to know they can get through stuff.”