August 22, 2011

Maine at Work: Raking blueberries
by hand proves no easy feat

Maine at Work: It's all about bending at the knees and technique, our reporter learns on a beautiful hillside in Union.

By Ray Routhier rrouthier@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

UNION — For the first few minutes, I simply watch Jake Powers.

click image to enlarge

Reporter Ray Routhier puts his back into it, as he uses a rake to pick blueberries at Hart's Clary Hill Farm in Union.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

THIS WEEK'S JOB

TITLE: Blueberry raker/blueberry farmer, Hart's Clary Hill Farm, Union.

WORKERS: Jake Powers, 18, of Appleton; Brian Powers, 66, of Hope.

HOURS: During the three-week harvest, rakers generally work 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.

SALARY RANGE: Paid by the pound, an efficient raker can make $100 a day or more; Jake Powers said he made about $3,600 in three weeks last year.

DUTIES: Raking wild low-bush blueberries with a hand rake and readying them either to be sold at a roadside stand or shipped to a processing plant to be frozen.

SURPRISING FACTS: Raking blueberries takes some finesse because raking too fast or getting too many berries in your rake can squeeze water out of the berries and make them lighter, which is bad, since harvesters and growers get paid by the pound, not the berry.

PERKS: Tasty blueberries at your fingertips; fresh air and beautiful scenery, picking atop a hill with spectacular views; plenty of exercise.

ABOUT THIS SERIES

MAINE AT WORK takes an interactive look at iconic, visible or just plain interesting jobs done by folks in Maine. Reporter Ray Routhier shadows a worker or workers, reports what he sees and tries his hand at some of the job's duties.

IF YOU'D like to suggest a job to be explored in this feature, email rrouthier@pressherald.com or call 791-6454.

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.

(Continued on page 2)

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors




Further Discussion

Here at PressHerald.com we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)