This year’s generous rains produced a bumper crop on the 60,000 acres of wild or lowbush blueberries in Maine. The lowbush blueberry is Maine’s state fruit. The state’s blueberry industry contributed over $250 million in direct and indirect economic impact in 2007, according to UMaine Cooperative Extension.
Lowbush blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium) are native to eastern North America. They are found in eastern and central Canada and grow south to West Virginia and west to the Great Lakes region and Minnesota. Downeast Maine and southeast Canada offer perfect climates for blueberries with growing seasons May through late August.
Lowbush blueberries are short, spreading, deciduous shrubs typically 14 to 24” high. The glossy blue-green leaves turn crimson each fall. The plant thrives in acidic, well-drained soils and in sunny or shaded wooded sites. In ideal conditions, blueberries form large monoculture barrens.
Farmers manage their blueberry fields on a two-year cycle to maximize blueberry production. Blueberry growers traditionally burn or mow their fields after the harvest or early the next spring when the snow melts. This stimulates plants and helps manage unwanted woody shrubs and trees.
Commercial harvesting began in the mid-1800s. The US and Canada each account for about half the wild blueberry industry. See a video on blueberry cultivation, harvest and processing put out by the Wild Main Blueberry Association here.
People love to pick a few blueberries as do black bears, birds and rodents. Workers called Rakers use wide, handheld blueberry “rakes” to collect berries. Rakers collect three or four scoops and then tip their berry-filled rake into a 5-gallon bucket. The full buckets are collected periodically by trucks or tractors.
Hundreds of roadside stands pop up across Maine and other regions during blueberry harvest season.
Five large processors still process and freeze blueberries in Maine. G.M Allen & Son has operated since 1912 in Orland. Wyman’s of Maine, based in Milbridge, pick up to 1.5 million pounds of berries/day using mechanical harvesters and raking crews. They have three processing plants, two in Maine and one on Prince Edward Island. Quick processing and freezing help preserve peak freshness and nutrition.
Early summer producers run ads seeking rakers at least 12 years old and processing plant workers at least 16 years old. G.M Allen & Son in Orland, Maine offered “competitive pay with [a] seasonal bonus.”
According to the Wild Maine Blueberries’ Facebook page, migrant workers are the primary labor force harvesting and processing lowbush blueberries. Migrant workers move their families regularly following crop harvests. Producers often offer worker housing in small cabins. The Raker's Center in Columbia, Maine offers migrant farm workers medical care, legal assistance and transportation to appointments. Many migrant workers come from Mexico, Nicaragua, Haiti, El Salvador and Jamaica.
Two hours east of Bangor, the town of Machias, Maine hosts a free Wild Blueberry Festival each August honoring ”all things blueberry.” According to the town’s website, visitors “celebrate the powerful little fruit that put our corner of Downeast Maine on the map. The Centre Street Congregational Church, UCC rolls out the blue carpet” with a children’s parade and 250 craft, food and civic vendors. Contests include blueberry pie eating, baking and a road race. Design contests include the annual T-shirt image, street banners and blueberry-themed quilts. Free entertainment includes the Orange River Jazz Band and UMaine’s Ukulele Club. Visitors learn how to rake blueberries and see mechanical harvesters working at Welch Farm in Rogue Bluffs. See the schedule of 2014 events here.
Wild Blueberry Land
Columbia Falls, Maine is home to the giant blueberry – a geodesic dome housing Wild Blueberry Land on Route 1. Blueberry farmers Dell and Marie Emerson offer visitors everything blueberry: breads, pastries, cakes and jams. A former culinary arts instructor, Chef Marie bakes and sells thousands of pies each season. They host school tours teaching about blueberry cultivation and offer a miniature golf course including a giant blueberry pie made from a scrap satellite dish. Learn more at Wild Blueberry Land‘s Facebook page or see the Bangor Daily News’s feature story.
For nearly 100 years, blueberries were primarily preserved by canning or made into jam. Flash freezing began 40 to 45 years ago. Processors sort, clean and process wild blueberries within hours of picking to preserve flavor, quality and antioxidants. Winnowing machines remove twigs and leaves during harvest and automated processing lines rinse, sanitize and individually quick freeze (IQF) berries.
In 1874, Jasper Wyman founded a seafood canning company in Milbridge, Maine. By 1900, he began to focus on wild blueberries. Over the next century, Jasper’s descendants acquired over 10,000 acres of fields and barrens, including the highest-yielding Wild Blueberry acres in the world. The company also works with growers across Maine, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.
Jasper Wyman & Son uses state-of-the-art technology, in-ground irrigation, controlled frozen storage, laser scanners, metal detectors and advanced processing equipment to assure the highest quality fruit. Jasper Wyman & Son uses color laser sorters ensure berries are packaged without unripe berries or debris.
Frozen blueberries are sold through its signature brand, Wyman's of Maine. They also sells frozen blackberries, raspberries, cranberries, strawberries and mangoes from American family farms and abroad.
Wild Blueberries are one of only three berries native to North America beside Concord grapes, and cranberries. Native Americans prized lowbush blueberries for their taste, nutrition and healing qualities. Wild blueberries are nutrient-rich and packed with fiber, minerals and antioxidants. Deep-blue pigments called anthocyanins or flavonoids offer antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties - essential to healthy aging and reduced risk of chronic diseases. Increasing global health consciousness has raised consumer demand for high antioxidant foods including blueberries.
NASS statistics show prices to growers peaked at $2.50/pound of fresh berries in 2012 and 1.07 for processing berries in 2007 ($.90 in 2011). 2013 numbers are not yet available. High blueberry prices meant growers planted more lowbush and highbush blueberries in North and South American. With high demand and supply growing, some believe prices may drop over time.
Learn about ‘wild’ blueberry cultivation here. View a list of fact sheets here. Contact Dr. David Yarborough, Wild Blueberry Specialist, via email, call 207.581.2923 or write UMaine Cooperative Extension, 5722 Deering Hall, Room 414, Orono, ME 04469-5722.
View a brief video on growing and harvesting blueberries from Wyman's here. Learn more about Wyman’s of Maine. Learn more about the nutrition and health benefits of wild blueberries here and here. See blueberry recipes here and here.
Contact the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine at 207-581-1475 or write University of Maine, 5784 York Complex Suite 52, Orono, ME 04469-5784.
A similar story ran in the October, 2013 eastern edition of Country Folks Grower.