REXBURG, Idaho — For many high school students in rural districts throughout eastern Idaho, fall break means heading to spud fields early in the morning for tedious labor in the dust and cold until well after dark.
School district officials say a fall potato harvest break is a necessity since state funding is tied to attendance, which tends to be poor when local growers need more helping hands to bring in their crops.
The students can pad their savings accounts in short order. And the growers get needed labor at a critical time — as well as a valued opportunity to pass along a farm work ethic to a younger generation.
St. Anthony seed potato grower Dirk Parkinson said high school students comprise about 30 percent of his harvest workforce. They're paid equivalent wages as H-2A workers.
"We're really quite dependent on high school kids because we've been using them for so long," said Parkinson, who recruits most of his students from nearby South Fremont High School. "If the school district decided not to do it, it would jam us up pretty hard."
A few students have rolled trucks, but Parkinson said they generally do a good job and there have been no serious injuries.
Though Madison High School in Rexburg returned from its week-long harvest break on Oct. 7, senior Kim Crawford chose to spend a few more days sorting out dirt clods and rotten spuds at a local farm. She'll avoid penalization for absences through a school work-release program. She explained the district's break used to be longer, but there was a decline in students participating in harvest.
"It's super long hours, but you can earn money fast," Crawford said.
The farms feed the workers hot meals, which Crawford said taste especially good on cold nights.
Adrian Arreola, a senior at Sugar-Salem High School, located on Digger Drive in Sugar City, has been visiting farms since early childhood and riding in the tractor with his father, a farm manager in Newdale. Arreola just finished his fourth spud harvest and also spends summer breaks bailing hay and helping with grain harvest.
"You get kids who work hard and can handle it, and some kids you can tell haven't worked in all of their lives. They act like they're working when the boss comes around," Arreola said.
Sugar-Salem Principal Jared Jenks estimates 100-150 students work in spud fields during his school's two week harvest break, which was moved up a week this season because farmers told the school board the crop was maturing ahead of schedule.
"Working is as educational as being in school. Kids can learn a lot of life lessons by working on a farm," said Jenks, who was raised on a farm.
Some faculty members at rural schools also take advantage of the chance to make a bit of extra money at harvest, including Aberdeen High School Principal Travis Pincock. His school recently returned from a 12-day harvest break, during which he worked along side some of his best students.
"It's not surprising to see the ones who are working hard because they work hard in the classroom," Pincock said. "Some of those kids are out in front of that conveyor belt for 13 hours picking out dirt clods."