For 31 years, Maureen and Erwin Bacon ran the North Woods Trading Post on the outskirts of Baxter State Park.
When they decided to sell the store and retire to southern Maine, Maureen wanted to just retire. Her husband wanted to grow high bush blueberries.
They found a “spectacular” 13 acres in Cornish, which included five acres planted with 2,600 young blueberry bushes. Maureen, 68, loved the view of the White Mountains, but was still skeptical.
“But you know,” she said on the phone last week, “right now I’m outside weeding, and I just love it.”
It’s just the second year the couple have opened their blueberry operation to the public. Last year, they opened for six days and customers quickly wiped them out. This year, they tripled their sales in the first two weeks they were open. Maureen Bacon thinks it’s because word got around that they don’t use pesticides or herbicides. “You can eat them right off the bush,” she said.
And how is the crop this year?
“Our bushes have almost doubled in size since the last year, really,” Bacon said. “I think with all the rain and the heat and the sun we’ve had this summer, they’ve just exploded. We have never once had to close this season due to ripening. We’ve got plenty of berries everywhere.”
The story’s the same at Libby & Son U-Picks in Limerick.
“The June cold, rainy weather did delay the crop a little bit, but right now all records show that we’re ahead of every other year except for last year, so it’s looking really good,” said Aaron Libby. “We’re anticipating a huge crop, and possibly our best ever.”
Libby said his family has been planting more blueberries because they haven’t been able to keep up with demand, which has been increasing steadily every year.
While blueberries have gotten some great press in recent years for their health benefits, Libby attributes the increased interest in pick-your-own berry operations to people “looking to do something with family and friends.”
“Pick-your-own fruits is a very inexpensive when you look at activities to do, and you get to go home with great product,” Libby said. “So instead of just spending money at the movies or the fair or something like that, you’re spending usually less money, but you’re going home with a great product. It’s educational. Kids get to learn where food comes from.”
It doesn’t hurt that, at Libby’s farm at least, along with the berries you get live music, kettle corn and blueberry doughnuts. (Last year was the best year ever at Libby’s for those blueberry doughnuts, and yet sales are still up 13 percent this year.)
Here in southern Maine, we stuff our faces mostly with high bush blueberries, the plumper, sweeter cultivated cousin of the wild Maine blueberry that grows on the midcoast and Down East blueberry barrens.
Ninety-nine percent of Maine’s wild blueberry crop ends up frozen, but here in Maine we’re lucky enough to be able to buy them fresh from growers, roadside entrepreneurs and farmers markets.
They are a little more tart than cultivated berries, but they are great in muffins and other baked goods, and lots of people prefer them in pies. Their skins are chock full of good-for-you antioxidants.
Maine’s wild blueberry crop reached 91.1 million pounds in 2012, up 14 percent from the year before. That was the second-largest crop on record.
This year’s crop is, once again, looking “excellent,” at least in the Down East region, according to David Yarborough, wild blueberry specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. The harvest in the midcoast area might not be as robust.
“In May when the bloom was out, the midcoast region, around the Union area, had around 10 days of rain right during their peak bloom period,” Yarborough said. “I had a grower call me and say he got really small berries and was concerned. I think the lack of pollination from all that rain right when the flowers were receptive unfortunately reduced the crop in the midcoast region.
“Further Down East, as you get into the blueberry barrens in Washington County, they had actually pretty good weather from mid- to late bloom. And from what I’ve seen out in the field, the berries are huge.”
Midcoast growers started harvesting a couple of weeks ago. Down East, where 80 percent of Maine’s wild blueberry crop is grown, growers were expected to start harvesting this week.
Whether you prefer cultivated or wild blueberries, high bush or low bush, once those berries are at home in your own kitchen, they’ll probably end up in pies, muffins and mixed into your morning cereal and smoothies. As always, we have some other suggestions for you from southern Maine’s creative chefs and bakers.
This year, I have a special treat for you. Brant Dadaleares, the pastry chef at Portland’s renowned Fore Street, created a blueberry crisp just for us. I know it will be a hit because Dadaleares put it on the menu at Fore Street last week and it quickly became the restaurant’s best-selling dessert.
It’s a layered treat that begins with vanilla panna cotta in a Ball jar. Next comes blueberry compote and an almond cinnamon crisp, and then it’s all topped with sweet corn ice cream.
Who can resist that? It’s like summer in a jar.
Get all the recipes here.
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at firstname.lastname@example.org