Monday, March 10, 2014
Bridges uses wooden boxes for hand packing, because he believes they keep berries from sweating as much as in the plastic bins.
Nearly 40 percent of the world’s supply of wild blueberries is being harvested this month in Maine. If the crop is as good as expected this year, it should weigh in above 90 million pounds. That translates to roughly $154.9 million once the berries are frozen and value is added.
Wild blueberries (otherwise known as lowbush blueberries) have been farmed for thousands of years. First by the Wabanaki nations, and later the English settlers. Growing wild blueberries is reasonably easy, after all Mother Nature is the one making most of the major decisions. The challenging parts are managing her crop and timing the harvest.
The day I arrived in Baring, Maine in Washington County, to meet up with 3rd generation wild blueberry farmer Greg Bridges, it was a balmy 78 degrees and two days before peak ripeness. A few days before it had rained four inches (the average rainfall is an inch a week there this time of year) and there was more rain in the forecast (thankfully, it held off). According to Bridges, the crop needs enough rain to keep the fruit plump, but too much can stretch the skin. Farmers can pick when there is a light rain, but not a downpour. “Everything sticks together and doesn’t fall into the (hand) rake,” Bridges said. “With mechanical harvesters we’d lose a lot too.” Heavy rains also mean a delay in harvest, waiting for the plant’s fruit to firm up a bit.
Bridges sells primarily to Wyman’s of Maine, one of the biggest companies in the frozen berry market. Like a lot of small operators, he also sells some fresh at a roadside stand and to distributors. Timing is everything for fresh. Farmers need to pick the fruit, as it is getting ripe, before it goes by. On most days, Bridges has a crew of pickers harvesting for the fresh pack line, and on a field beside them several mechanical harvesters simultaneously working on harvesting for the frozen market. “We’re in a mad dash to get as much fresh product in, so we can go back and concentrate on the frozen market,” said Bridges. The motivation for having a refrigerated truck in the field, something Bridges began doing in recent years, is to store fresh picked berries to preserve their quality and give the pickers more time to harvest.
Bridges' son and son-in-law run a harvester.
Hand vs. Mechanical Raking
Wild blueberry farmers generally hand pick the rockier rougher ground and use mechanical harvesters on the more even land. Bridges prefers the Bragg Blueberry Harvester, a machine he said is pretty much the industry standard now. The harvester is operated by two people, a driver and a person to handle the boxes of berries on the rear-loading platform, and goes about .8 mph. According to the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension Blueberry Specialist, David Yarborough, these machines have been proven to reduce the harvesting costs as much as 50% and are more efficient than hand raking for product recovery. For more information on the Bragg Mechanical Harvester and other blueberry harvesting equipment go to the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension site.
Bridges is employing five migrant workers this year, but in the past has had as many as 30 working on the harvest. The last few years they have primarily been Haitians. One gentleman I met has worked for Bridges for ten years. The crew is provided with lodging and can make as much as $150 – 200 a day depending on how much they pick. An average day is 8:00 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. However, Bridges explained it is getting harder to find families who are willing to do the physical labor required to harvest by hand.
“When I was a kid growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s most of the kids raked all week and on the weekends, grandparents and parents would come along to rake,” Bridges said. “You don’t see that so much as you used to. There are still families like that up in Canada, but things are changing even in the rural communities. It’s easier to get a job at McDonald’s than it is to put your back into the work out here.”
Spotted Wing Drosophila
More than likely, if you follow farm/food news in Maine you have heard of the spotted wing drosophila (SWD), a fruit fly originally from Asia, that was found in Maine last year (though it’s possible it was here as early as 2011). It looks like other fruit flies, but unlike most fruit flies, which attack rotting or over-ripe fruit, SWD attacks healthy, undamaged fruit. It has rightfully been reported to have the potential to be a serious pest of berries, however “potential” is the key word. Yarborough and his colleague Frank Drummond, Professor of Insect Ecology, at The University of Maine have documented the significant losses in California (the fly has reportedly been there since 2008), are monitoring the pest, and educating Maine growers about insecticides registered for use against SWD in Maine this year.
Late last week, a fruit growers alert went out Monday from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, that SWD had been captured in traps in several areas. Growers I spoke with in Washington County are either trying to get their harvest in earlier or are using insecticides and do not expect a large impact.
Bridges does not maintain traps for the fly, but he knows they are in the fields and that their numbers are increasing. Last year, he found damaged fruit (shrunken, rotting) towards the end of August and was harvesting into September. This year, he is trying to get the harvest in as early as possible and hopes to be done by August 25th.
At the end of harvest, in early September, once all the berries have been delivered, Bridges and his family will take a long weekend and go to 8th Annual Eastport Pirate Festival. By the time they return home, the leaves on the wild blueberry plants will have reddened up providing a spectacle of color and a promise by Mother Nature that next year’s crop is several months away.
The crew at Bridges' family facility packs an average of 250 boxes from 3-10:30pm.
Kate McCarty, a University of Maine Cooperative Extension Food Preservation Community Education Assistant and Portland food blogger, kindly shared the following recipe with The Root’s readers.
Honeyed Blueberry Vanilla Jam adapted by Kate McCarty from Pomona’s Universal Pectin
Before you begin: mix 1/2 teaspoon calcium powder (included with Pomona’s Pectin) with 1/2 cup water in a small jar with a lid. Shake well and store remaining water in the refrigerator for future use.
4 cups mashed wild Maine blueberries
1 vanilla bean or 1 teaspoon Sweetgrass vanilla extract
1/2 cup lemon juice
2 teaspoons calcium water
1 cup Maine honey
2 teaspoons Pomona's pectin powder (available at natural food stores)
Measure prepared fruit and lemon juice into a large stockpot. Split vanilla bean lengthwise with a knife and use knife to scrape out vanilla beans. Add to fruit mixture. Stir in calcium water. Bring fruit mixture to a full rolling boil (one that cannot be stirred down) on medium-high heat, stirring frequently.
Measure honey into a separate bowl and thoroughly mix pectin powder into honey. Add honey-pectin mixture and stir while cooking to dissolve. Return to a full rolling boil and remove from heat.
Ladle hot jam into 8oz. jars, leaving 1/4-inch headspace. Wipe rims and apply dome lid and screw band until fingertip tight. Process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. Let cool, undisturbed for 24 hours, then check that jars have sealed.
Jam can also be frozen in glass or plastic 8oz. jars. After opening, store in the refrigerator and eat within two weeks.Tweet
Sharon Kitchens is a neo-homesteader learning the ins and outs of country living by luck and pluck and a lot of expert advice. She writes about bees for The Huffington Post and stuff she loves on her personal blog, deliciousmusings.com.
When she is not writing, she enjoys edible gardening, reading books on food and/or thinking about food, hanging out by her beehives and patiently tracking down her chickens in the woods behind her old farmhouse.
In her blog, Sharon profiles farm families, reports on farm-based education and internships, conducts Q&A's with master beekeepers, offers tips on picking a CSA, and much more.