UNION — For the first few minutes, I simply watch Jake Powers.
The 18-year-old is raking blueberries on a hillside with spectacular views, bending over and using an aluminum rake with two small handles to sweep through the low-lying blueberry plants that cover the land.
In a few minutes, Jake has his rake full, and empties the blueberries into a big plastic box. It doesn’t look that hard, so I grab my little rake — it’s sort of like a big dustpan with tines — and bend over at the waist.
That is my first mistake.
“You’re way too erect, you wouldn’t last very long doing it that way,” says Brian Powers, 66, who is Jake’s grandfather and who runs the family-owned Hart’s Clary Hill Farm. “You’ve got to bend at the knees or you’ll feel it in your back.”
Jake, a standout athlete who plans to wrestle in college, tells me it helps to lean one arm on a knee while raking. I do that, and drag my rake through the blueberries. I’m getting berries, but I’m getting a rake full of leaves and twigs and debris, too.
Instead of dragging the rake, I should be gently lowering it into the plants, then tipping the tines upward to pull the berries off, the elder Powers tells me.
And, he also tells me that on my first go-round in the berries, I let my rake get too full before emptying it.
By letting the rake get too full, I am crushing some of the blueberries, squeezing the water out of them. That is bad, Powers tells me. It makes the berries lighter.
“We get paid by the pound, not by the berry,” says Powers.
Powers runs a blueberry farm that his wife’s family started in the 1930s. The land had originally been a sheep farm, but is now turning out one of Maine’s most iconic crops — wild blueberries.
The challenges to growing blueberries begin with the fact that they are wild, Powers tells me. You don’t plant them, you can’t decide where they’ll grow. This makes weeding or treating them with herbicides tricky. And it makes picking them — on rocky hillsides for instance — tricky as well.
Powers, whose main job is as a home builder, spends some time every year treating the land to help create better growing conditions, and thinning or pruning the plants.
The 40 or so acres are beautiful, with low blueberry plants filling fields between rock walls. But Powers reminds that everything he does to the land is to keep it producing blueberries at a profit.
“Yes, it’s beautiful, but it’s a business,” Powers says.
And it’s a business that requires quick action. The berries can be picked only for about three weeks each summer before they start falling off the bush, Powers tells me. Some will be sold at a roadside stand, some will go to a frozen blueberry processor.
That’s where grandson Jake and the four or five other young men Powers hires every summer come in. They are the rakers.
On this day it is about 80 degrees and Jake and two other teens had started working part of the hill around 7 a.m. They have run strings up and down the hill, partitioning the hill into sections, to help keep track of where they had raked.
They all use hand rakes, mostly because the area is weedy and uneven, and hand rakes are the best option.
Though he’s in very good shape, Jake tells me there’s no way to avoid getting sore if you rake all day. I also notice that he’s wearing shorts. I wear long pants thinking this will protect my legs from being scraped by bushes.
“It just gets too hot to wear long pants,” says Jake, who graduated from high school recently.
Jake began raking blueberries when he was 11. When asked what his favorite part of the job is, he points to his two friends working beside him, and says that being able to talk and joke around with them is a perk.
But he’s quick to mention the money. Last year, a very good year for blueberries on the farm, he made about $3,600. In three weeks.
On some parts of the land, the elder Powers uses a walk-behind harvesting machine to get the berries. This machine, made in Prince Edward Island, Canada, looks like a snowblower, with two big handles behind it. But the front has a big roller with six rake blades on it. As the gas-powered machine runs, the blades turn and rake the berries onto a conveyor contraption, which carries the berries up and into a plastic box.
Powers lets me run the harvester, telling me that one hand control starts the rakes and the other engages the drive. I engage the rakes first, then the drive. I quickly find that the machine wants to follow the contour of the land, so I have to put a decent amount of pressure on the handles to keep it straight.
It is like mowing the lawn, except I can’t use taller bushes as a guide, the way I might with tall grass. The plants, picked or not, are all the same height. I have to keep my eyes out for blue, and steer in that direction.
As I steer the machine, I find that the leaves torn from the plant by the spinning rakes come flying at me like confetti. They go in my mouth and down my shirt.
I am so focused on steering the harvester in a straight line, and trying to avoid eating leaves, that I never look at the box filling with blueberries. Powers has to hold up a hand to stop me, and point at the nearly overflowing boxes. I then stop the machine and empty the boxes.
“This is a good way to do it, but for a lot of areas, raking by hand is the only way to get at them,” Powers tells me, adding that his blueberries grow where they want. Not where he wants.
That’s why they’re called wild.
Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at: