Back to On the Road with John Tarleton

Globalizing the Wild Blueberry

by John Tarleton
August 2002

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. It's backbreaking 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 heavily wooded area larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined.

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 into the global economy.

Last year, independent growers received the same price (31 cents) they received in 1976. The box price for rakers has also remained stagnant or declined.

Cherryfield Foods, a subsidiary of a 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.

This article originally appeared in the New York Indypendent. Photos by David Brooks Stess.

Back to On the Road with John Tarleton