Globalizing the Wild Blueberry
by John Tarleton •
Thursday August 29, 2002 at 02:23 PM
Wild blueberries. They are everywhere
these days — in breakfast cereals, jams,
muffins, pancakes, pop tarts and sold alone.
They flourish in the highly acidic soil of northern
Maine, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia
and are harvested in August by hundreds of
migrants including this reporter.
work that attracts a diverse collection
of people. At once idyllic and brutal, this
unique harvest may soon be a thing of the past.
Historically, the wild blueberry’s journey
to your breakfast table has begun in a rake, the
18-inch-wide, metal-tined scooping device
used to comb the low-lying blueberry vines.
Mexicans, Mic Mac (Mi’Kmaq) Indians from
eastern Canada, crusty gutter punks and free-floating
hippies take to the fields at dawn’s first light. Bent over
in the blazing sun, the rakers slowly vacuum the blue
carpet that covers the fields.
The sun’s slow-arcing trajectory traces the course of
the day. You are keenly alert to every cloud, shadow and
gentle late afternoon breeze. Paid by production, rakers
can choose when to eat or rest, hop in a nearby stream or
just hang out with friends. It’s not uncommon to see people
sitting in a circle in the middle of the field sharing a
big fat spliff, sometimes with the crew boss. Yet, most of
the time, people rake with a desperate intensity. Fired by
various dreams, they seek to make the most of their time
in what is still, potentially, one of the most lucrative
migrant gigs around. The trick is in the wielding of the
rake — a special pushing and twisting motion of the
wrists that teases the ripe berries from the grasp of the
vine without crushing the fruit. A
strong back comes in handy, too.
I stretch and meditate for an hour
before work and try to cruise along at
1,200-1,500 lbs. per day, earning roughly
10 cents per lb. Crews of as many as
100 people work side-by-side in long
20-foot-wide rows marked off by thin
white twine. Raking can be highly competitive.
Eventually, though, you realize it’s a waste of time to
compare yourself to others. Someone will always be faster. At
day’s end, there’s a sublime satisfaction to coming off the field
totally spent knowing you’ve done the best you can. Back at
camp, sleep comes easily though blueberries have a way of
popping up in your dreams.
The harvest can also be a nightmare, though. Many
people don’t find as much “blue gold” as they hope for.
As with most farm work, injury rates are disproportionately
high. Pesticide usage is widespread. Maine’s
Washington County, the self-proclaimed “Blueberry
Capital of the World,” is the poorest county in a poor
state, with 34,000 inhabitants scattered over a heavilywooded
area larger than Delaware and Rhode Island
Maine’s annual wild blueberry production has more
than tripled from 24 million to 75 million lbs. per year.
over the past two decades, and in that time, a small,
locally-controlled industry has been increasingly assimilated
Last year, independent
received the same
price (31 cents)
they received in
1976. The box
price for rakers
has also remained
Foods, a subsidiary
Canadian frozen foods conglomerate, is now the largest
blueberry grower in Maine, owning or managing over
12,000 acres of land. It once hired 800-1,200 rakers per
season. It now makes do with 250. Mechanical harvesters
are more cost-effective even though they are
prone to tearing plants from their roots and recover as
little as 60 percent of the berries that a hand raker gets.
Such is progress in the era of globalization.