North by East
Opinions, advisories, and musings from the length and breadth of Maine
Cartoon by Jamie Smith
An agricultural tradition in the County is on borrowed time.
Every day, technology has a profound impact on Mainers’ lives, whether it’s through the iPhone in our pocket or the new manufacturing system at the local mill. Up in the County, the advent of progress is now threatening to do away with the “potato break,” an early autumn tradition that sees schoolkids trade their laptops for work gloves as they help haul in Maine’s signature harvest.
A tradition for generations in Aroostook County, where 1.6 million tons of spuds are harvested annually, the week-long potato break has gradually been phased out of many school districts after teachers said the pause disrupts their curriculum and some parents complained about having to find childcare. In addition, school district officials question whether enough local children actually are using the break to work in the fields, as technological advancements have helped the harvest require fewer hands.
Last spring, school districts in Houlton and Hodgdon considered whether the potato break should be put on ice, but instead opted to keep it on a year-by-year basis, says Mike Hammer, superintendent of Maine School Administrative District No. 29, which includes Houlton. “We’re going to stick with it this year — it’s on the calendar to start September 27 — and we’re going to talk with the farmers this fall to find out exactly how many kids take part,” says Hammer, who only arrived in the County recently from a position on the coast. “From what I’ve heard, the break is important to the farmers and they appreciate the dialogue, of being involved in the discussion. It’s part of the tradition here, so it’s not going to be something that will go away easily.”
Hammer notes that despite the break, students in the County don’t actually miss any school, since they start the year earlier than the rest of the state. In certain subject areas, including sports, that can actually give kids in northern Maine a leg up on their peers statewide. “I’d heard about the potato break when I was playing soccer on the coast, because we used to complain that kids in the County started earlier and so were hitting their stride before we did,” he remarks.
Perhaps the benefits of potatoes are even more far-reaching than we realized.
An odd system ensures Vinalhaven residents can get home on the ferry.
Many people can’t imagine living on a Maine island, marooned at sea half a dozen miles or more from shore, unable to leave when you want. But for islanders the situation is exactly the opposite. For residents of Vinalhaven, for instance, the problem is not getting off the island, it’s getting back on. With the Governor Curtis and Captain Charles Philbrook ferries only able to transport seventeen vehicles from Rockland across Penobscot Bay at a time, there’s no assurance that you and your car will make it back to the island after a day of errands. Practically from morning until the last ferry departs at 4:30 p.m., the queue at the Rockland terminal is bumper-to-bumper with cars and trucks. As each ferry departs, the line of cars inches forward, and yet somehow there always seem to be new cars filling in the line.
The thing is, not all of those cars are actually going to the island, says Jim MacLeod, manager of the Maine State Ferry Service. To make sure islanders can get back to their homes easily, a unique micro-business has developed whereby some entrepreneurial types keep several cars in the line and, for a fee, allow drivers to swap out their own vehicles for those spots. This “line car” system, which is not administered by the ferry service, allows someone from Vinalhaven to come ashore, do their shopping at Hannaford, and then make it back to the island in time for supper.
MacLeod says a person inquired last year about the legality of the practice, and the Maine Department of Transportation took a look but decided it was all above board. Still, he admits that the arrangement reeks of “scalping” ferry tickets and makes most passersby believe that there’s no way they’ll be able to squeeze onto a ferry. “We’ve looked at trying to get rid of that kind of system, but the islanders actually like it,” MacLeod says. “People want to have a degree of certainty that they’ll be able to get back home. Still, all these line cars actually makes the congestion worse here in Rockland; there may only be ten cars going to Vinalhaven, but you’ll see fifty cars sitting in the lot.”
MacLeod says the solution may be in expanding the phone-in reservation system that was implemented this summer on just the Vinalhaven-Rockland side of the route, whereby callers get a guaranteed spot just by phoning a day or even a few hours in advance. (There’s also still the option to reserve a spot up to a month ahead of time, though MacLeod says these typically are taken as soon as they’re available.) In addition, the ferry service has a twenty-three-vehicle ferry scheduled for delivery this fall, which will also alleviate some congestion. “The line car system wasn’t designed by us, but oftentimes islanders do things to adapt,” he says.
Ain’t that the truth.
When it comes to reducing trash, several Maine towns find themselves in a curious predicament.
The headline that appeared in a few Maine newspapers in June was perplexing to say the least: “Towns Fined for Too Little Trash.” And indeed it was true: Forty-five towns were being penalized for sending less trash than they had promised to the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. (PERC) in Orrington during the year 2010.
That’s right. The towns were being charged for reducing their trash. Together the fines exceeded $100,000, ranging from $21 for the town of Maxfield (population: 87) to $14,255 for the city of Waterville.
Not surprisingly, the story is a little more complicated than it first appears. PERC, a waste-to-energy facility, is a private-public partnership, with eighty-six charter member towns sharing about 23 percent of the ownership, according to the Bangor Daily News (John Noer and Kevin Nordby of Minneapolis own the remaining 77 percent). PERC pays member towns part of its profit from selling the energy it converts from trash to electric companies — they get a refund, in other words. Likewise, when PERC does not receive sufficient waste, the towns share the pinch, hence the penalties.
“It’s not a big deal for us,” says Paul Bowen, a selectman in the town of Penobscot, which was charged $886 for failing to send enough waste in 2010 (the town contracted for 650 tons; it sent 573 tons). “When we joined the PERC program, we had to establish the amount of trash we’d send up there, and we’ve never achieved that amount.” In fact, Bowen says, PERC took note of the recession and waived penalties in 2009. In the meantime, Penobscot, along with many other towns, has reduced its guaranteed annual tonnage for 2011.
The sluggish economy is one reason towns are creating less waste. “People don’t buy as much during a recession, and most of the trash is packaging,” Bowen points out.
Robust recycling and pay-as-you-throw trash programs are another reason for the trash deficit, and therein lies a problem. Mainers have made an applaudable effort to reduce waste and conserve resources, and they should be encouraged to continue to do so. The penalties and renegotiated contracts signal that it’s time for PERC and its member communities to begin exploring new ways to keep those incinerators humming with less trash.
The path to “Whitey” Bulger’s arrest began in Maine.
Lots of good things are concocted in Maine kitchens, but we never expected that one of them would be a plan to catch an FBI Top Ten Fugitive. After sixteen years in hiding, James “Whitey” Bulger, the notorious Boston mobster, was arrested in Santa Monica, California, in June, thanks to a thirty-second video cooked up in the Saco kitchen of Charlie Berg, the president of Blackfly Media.
Berg and Angela Helton, president of Northeast Media Associates, collaborated with FBI agents on the public service announcement (PSA) during two marathon sessions at Berg’s home in May. Less than thirty-six hours after it aired in fourteen cities across the country, Bulger, 81, and his girlfriend, Catherine Greig, 60, were captured on a tip from a viewer.
The FBI has credited the video’s success in part on its emphasis on Greig. The spot begins with the FBI seal spiraling into view against a black background, immediately followed by a photograph of the blonde blue-eyed Greig sliding in from the side. “Have you seen this woman?” a female voice asks. The bureau bought 350 time slots during daytime television shows with predominantly female audiences, such as Rachael Ray, Dr. Oz, The View, and Ellen.
“I was still in bed, half asleep,” recalls Helton of hearing the news delivered by her husband on June 23, the morning after the couple’s arrest. “I jumped out of bed — I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’ I couldn’t believe it.”
“Never in a million years did I expect he’d be captured,” says Berg. “Just gauging from the FBI agents’ demeanor, it seemed that at best the PSA would generate some new leads.”
So how did a FBI video spot end up being made in the Pine Tree State? As it happens, Mollie Helpburn, a staffer in the bureau’s Washington, D.C., media office, is a former Portland television reporter who reached out to her friend Helton when the idea for the video evolved last spring. The five agents who arrived at Berg’s house in May wearing crisp dark suits and dark glasses appeared intimidating at first, but, Helton says, they proved to be “really fun to work with.”
Both Helton, who has worked as a journalist, and Berg, who is currently a news photographer for WCSH in Portland, say the most difficult part of the project was the FBI’s insistence on confidentiality. “I have a big mouth,” Helton admits. “It was tough.”
Berg, meanwhile, is looking at ways to keep good publicity about Blackfly Media glowing. On Blackfly Media’s Facebook page, he’s posted an image of a T-shirt he soon hopes to market: “You’re Welcome, America,” it reads.
Maine Is Growing
. . . and in this case, that’s not a good thing.
Let’s be blunt: We Mainers are fat, and we’re getting fatter.
That is the bad news contained in “F as in Fat,” a report released this past summer by the Trust for America’s Health, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the prevention of chronic diseases. With more than 26 percent of adults classified as obese, Maine is the twenty-seventh fattest state in the nation, up from number twenty-nine in 2010 and number thirty-five in 2009. Moreover, we Mainers are fatter than all of our New England neighbors (the leanest New England state: Connecticut, in position forty-nine). The best thing we can say about this report’s findings is that we have plenty of company. Sixteen states saw increases in their obesity rates; none experienced a decline.
“Obesity is a national problem, and Maine parallels the national increase,” says Dr. Sheila Pinette, head of Maine’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention. High poverty and unemployment rates have likely nudged Maine to its loftier new rank, Pinette says, but for the most part the behaviors that make Mainers fat are the same ones that make Americans everywhere fat. “We have more sedentary lifestyles with the increased technology like the Internet,” Pinette says. “Lack of exercise and large food portions are giving us a negative energy balance.”
Maine isn’t ignoring the epidemic, says Pinette, who pointed to state and community programs like Healthy Maine Partnerships and Winter Kids, and the state’s new ban on the advertising of calorie-dense and sugary foods in school areas could prove to be a powerful weapon in the anti-obesity arsenal. In the meantime, though, she offers this commonsense prescription: eat your fruits and vegetables, cut down on fat and sugar, and get outside and enjoy the wonders that make Maine a natural playground.
One Mainer to Another:
They seem so happy about it. “Goodbye, goodbye,” they say, “we’ll see you next spring!” Then they fly south. They seem gleeful about being listed in our annual town report as “non-resident taxpayers,” and in spite of that are fine people and a good addition to our down-Maine community. Summertime friends, they remain non-resident, and also as summer complaints, rusticators, cottagers, seasonal visitors, and even dogfish. (The dogfish, a small shark, arrives in our waters at approximately the same time, and ruins the haddock fishing.) But not tourist — the tourist comes and goes and stops overnight, and the tourists tell us they can buy gasoline in Massachusetts cheaper than Maine. (That’s the place to buy it!) Our summer folks own their places here, and some had grandfathers who owned the same places. They support our library and ambulance; they take an interest. But, Labor Day is the difference, and off they go to pass the winter waiting for spring. —John Gould, One Hundredth