Tuesday, March 11, 2014
Eating fresh picked wild blueberries out of my hand is one of the great joys of summer in Maine. Adding them to smoothies, baked goods, and ice cream is also pretty wonderful. It takes a lot of blueberries to make a pie (note this Maine Office of Tourism recipe calls for four cups), and most people I know want fresh tasting blueberries in their pancakes in March, which is where a company like Wyman’s of Maine comes in handy.
Earlier this week The Root posted on Maine’s wild blueberry harvest from the perspective of 3rd generation farmer Greg Bridges, who sells most of his crop to Wyman’s of Maine. Today we venture into Maine’s wild blueberry barrens with Nat Lindquist, formerly V.P. of Operations and now a consultant for Wyman’s, one of the largest wild blueberry growers and producers of frozen fruit in the world.
About ten miles from Wyman’s base of operations in Cherryfield, Maine the landscape opens up and you find yourself driving down a two-lane road with acres of blueberry barrens spreading out on one side of the road and a “blue village” and processing facility on the other. Behind 1200 acres of nothing but lowbush blueberries are a line of trees and then more barrens and more barrens. Two miles further down the road are several thousand. “It’s different,” said Lindquist. Aside from areas in eastern Canada, these barrens are different from anywhere else in the world.
Overall, the company manages more than 10,000 acres of wild blueberry barrens as well as the fields of other Wyman growers from Maine, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Founded in 1874 by Jasper Wyman and his brother Edward Albert Wyman, Wyman’s was originally focused on canning sardines, lobsters, and clams. A large land owner, Jasper Wyman discovered blueberries growing on his private land and added them to the company’s line of goods. The company is still family-owned.
Wyman’s hires approximately 400 to 450 seasonal workers annually to bring the crop in. “Because blueberries are indigenous to the area a lot of people have been growing or handling blueberries for a better part of their lives,” said Lindquist. “Some employees on our farm have been doing this for most of their life. They know it, they do it well. They follow the crops and send money home.”
According to the USDA, almost three-quarters of hired crop farmworkers work at a single location within 75 miles of their home. "Follow the crop" migrant farmworkers, who move from state to state working on different crops as the seasons advance, make up less than five percent of hired farm labor today. It is a combination of these two types of workers that comprise a majority of the labor force, which harvests Maine’s wild blueberry crop. These are documented workers who play an important role in this state’s agribusiness industry. Workers harvesting the blueberry crop 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.
To accommodate all their migrant labor, the company built a dormitory and constructed a village of cabins (which are all painted light blue creating quite a visual effect). In addition to a couple canteens, a Mexican food truck takes food out to workers in the fields.
The fields are numbered with some being harvested this year, and the rest next year (wild blueberries grow on a two-year cycle). The fields being harvested are further divided with twine to define where a single raker will pick by hand. Brightly colored field boxes sit about waiting to be filled.
In addition to hand picking, Wyman’s uses mechanical harvesters, where the land has been leveled, derocked, and destumped. “These machines only get used three to four weeks out of the year,” said Lindquist. “We’re all hoping for a good crop. They have to make money. We have to make money. It’s seasonal.”
Inside the factory across from the barrens, are three processing lines where the freshly harvested berries are organized by date, go through a cleaning process, a freezing tunnel (where they are individually quick frozen), laser scanners to remove foreign material, and to a final inspection area before being packaged. Human eyes make the final inspection in the Pick Over Room, where the company will see foreign material if their Laser Sorters are not operating properly. Wyman’s thinking is even with all the state-of-the-art technology, they still want human eyes for the final inspection.
The company also maintains a processing facility in Cherryfield, Maine with one processing line and all the same equipment. At that plant, fresh fruit is received from the barrens and outside (third party) growers. The berries are frozen within 24 hours of their arrival at the plant.
Standard Baking Co., in Portland, Maine has generously shared the following recipe for all of the Root’s readers who have a hankering for homemade baked goods with the taste of a Maine summer day.
Wild Blueberry-Oat Scones by Standard Baking Co.
Note: The most you can fit on a baking sheet is 6. If you have only one baking sheet, position the rack in the center of the oven. The additional batter can sit at cool room temperature while the first batch is baking. After the baking sheet has cooled you can bake the last round. Note that the second batch may be taller and rounder than the first because the oats have a tendency to absorb moisture as the mixture sits.
Makes 9 scones
2 ½ cups flour (high-extraction or bolted whole wheat flour, but all-purpose flour is fine too)
¼ cup packed dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon plus ¼ teaspoon baking powder
¾ teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon fine sea salt
9 tablespoons (1 stick plus 1 tablespoon) unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes, chilled
¾ cup rolled oats*, plus more for garnish
¾ cup fresh or frozen wild blueberries
1 ½ cups half-and-half (more or less depending on the absorption of the flour)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 tablespoons turbinado sugar, for garnish
1. Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F. Line 2 rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper.
2. Combine the flour, brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a food processor and blend for 5 seconds. Add the butter and pulsing on and off about 20 times, blend until the mixture resembles a coarse meal (or combine ingredients in a mixing bowl and blend with your fingertips or a pastry blender). Transfer the mixture to a large bowl. Add the oats and the blueberries and toss everything together using your hands, until the blueberries are coated with the dry ingredients.
3. In a glass measuring cup with a spout, combine the half-and-half and vanilla. Gradually add the liquid to the flour mixture using a rubber spatula or plastic scraper, mixing until the dough just comes together (the dough will be very moist).
4. Using a 1/2-cup measuring cup for each scone, loosely scoop the dough and drop it in mounds onto the prepared baking sheet, spacing them about 3 inches apart. Garnish the tops with the additional oats, then dust them with the turbinado sugar.
5. Bake for 15 minutes. Rotate the sheet pans from top to bottom and front to back and continue baking until the scones have golden brown ridges and the centers feel firm, about 12 minutes longer. Transfer the scones to a cooling rack and cool slightly before serving. Serve warm or at room temperature.
*Standard Baking Co. uses Aurora Mills Organic Rolled Oats.
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.