April 3, 2013

Soup to Nuts: Black-and-white and blueberries

When it comes to Maine's wild blueberries, David Stess is equally adept at picking or shooting them.

By Meredith Goad mgoad@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

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“Winnowing,” circa 1991, gelatin silver print.

Photo courtesy of VoxPhotographs and Portland Museum of Art/© David Brooks Stess

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"Caledonia," circa 2000, gelatin silver print.

Photo courtesy of VoxPhotographs and Portland Museum of Art/© David Brooks Stess

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"I came up the next year," he recalled. "They didn't know what to make of me, but they signed me up. I suffered horribly that first year. I had the wrong clothing, and I sucked at raking, and I made like 50 bucks a day -- in 12 hours -- and I was killing myself. I couldn't get the hang of it, but I knew that once I got the hang of it I'd be really, really good at it. It suited my physicality."

Stess eventually became one of the top rakers on any crew he joined. Over the years, he learned a lot about wild blueberries and observed how the harvest has changed.

He's seen berry colors that vary from albino to black to different shades of red and blue, and marvels at the sheer number of clones to be found in a wild blueberry field.

"You can really see that in fall, when the foliage turns," Stess said. "There's this patchwork of different reds and oranges, and each one of those areas is a different-looking, different-tasting wild blueberry. That's why it has such a complex flavor. Some are sweeter, some are tarter, and that's why they're so good for jams and pies."

Stess believes wild blueberries have their own terroir, that sense of place bestowed on a food by geography and climate. He's noticed it in particular at one field in Cutler that produces organic berries for Ben Perrin's Burke Hill Farm.

"It gets a fog in from the water, and the berries on that field just taste incredible," Stess said, "richer in flavor and more complex. There's also a well there that's just about the best-tasting water I've ever had."

Perrin, Stess said, started out as a migrant laborer and is now the largest certified organic blueberry farmer in the state. The first image in Stess' exhibition is a 2-by-6-foot panoramic photo of one of Perrin's crews (a crew that includes Stess).

"It's probably the best hand-raking crew that's ever existed there," Stess said. "They come back every year, and they're incredibly well-trained. They rake the best berries. They know how to handle them."

The vast majority of wild blueberries are frozen after they are harvested, but hand-raked berries go into the fresh market. Hand raking produces a much better quality berry, Stess believes, because it leaves them more intact than machine harvesters -- no bruising or smashed berries.

"Factory raking for the freezer, you're just going as fast as you can," Stess said. "This, you're going as slow as you can. You're just filling your rake up a tiny bit, and you're gently pouring into old-school wooden boxes. You're really moving in slow motion, and you have to wait until the berries are dry. They can't be wet. There's an incredible amount of care that goes into harvesting wild blueberries for the fresh market."

A quarter-century on the barrens of Washington and Hancock counties taught Stess how to sweep and glide efficiently through a field, reading the terrain and "the direction of the berries."

"There's a real art to sweeping," he said, "and that's really been lost."

Today, Stess says, on most fields you'll see tractors working the barrens 24-7.

"What happened in American agriculture in the last 100 years has happened in Maine in less than 20," he said.

HAND RAKING ON THE DECLINE

Indeed, the photographer says the number of hand rakers in Maine has "declined precipitously" for a number of reasons. Agribusinesses are trying to lower their costs, for one. And, like potato picking, blueberry raking is a skill valued more by older generations, Stess said.

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Additional Photos

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“Off Hours,” gelatin silver print, circa 1994.

Photo courtesy of VoxPhotographs and Portland Museum of Art/© David Brooks Stess

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"Norman," circa 2002, gelatin silver print.

Photo courtesy of VoxPhotographs and Portland Museum of Art/© David Brooks Stess

click image to enlarge

“Raking Close Up, (John Boy),” circa 1999, gelatin silver print.

Photo courtesy of VoxPhotographs and Portland Museum of Art/© David Brooks Stess

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David Stess, whose show of photographs of blueberry rakers on Maine barrens opens Saturday at the Portland Museum of Art.

Gregory Rec / Staff Photographer

  


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