A white pickup truck drives past our camp and turns, then turns again and comes to a stop on the opposite side of the blueberry barren. Out steps a woman. She lights a cigarette, walks to the back and opens the tailgate. She looks over the barren for a minute or two as she smokes the cigarette. Then turns, puts it out on the tailgate grabs a wooden box and her blueberry rake and walks into the berry plants 10 or 15 paces. There she drops the box and bends over and begins her day raking blueberries.
Blueberries are harvested two ways, raking by hand and by machine. The hand raked go to fresh pack, the machine harvested go to the processor. Fresh pack are the berries sold fresh at the side of the road and to Helen’s. They’re sorted to be the best. Everything else goes to Wyman’s Berry Co. to be canned, frozen, pureed and sold to distributors. The woman in the field is Denise, Welch Farm’s top fresh pack raker. She started raking at age 6. She’ll rake about 6 hours a day most every day in August that it’s not raining.
Here she tells us a bit about raking blueberries.
She is paid $1.75 for each wooden box she harvests. During the rest of the year she works in food service at the local college. She and her husband would like to move to South Carolina someday “because it’s warm in the winter but I’ll still come back in August to rake. It’s my favorite thing to do.”
[Fordson was a tractor designed by Ford Motor Co. in 1917. Due to WWI it did not go into full production until 1919. Although rated one of the worst tractors on the market at the time by the Univ. of Nebraska the Fordson became the best selling tractor in the U.S. due to its low price, $750, and simple design. For many farmers this was the tractor that replaced the horse.]
“My grandfather bought it new in 1919.”
A forward looking man.” I replied.
“Yes he was. But the fact is he never got the hang of drivin’ it. He kept runnin’ into things. He preferred his oxen and horses. One day he went out to start it. No starter on them. Had to hand crank it. I guess he forgot to retard the timing or somethin’ cause when it fired that hand crank came back around and flung him clean into the hay loft. Well he climbed out of the hay, got down and walked out of the barn past where one o’ the hands was standin’. My Granddad turned to him and said, ‘Fred get a pitchfork and bury that damn tractor with the hay. I don’t want to ever see it again.’ As far as I know that was the last time it was used.”
Welch Farm in Roque Bluffs, Maine is a family owned wild blueberry farm on the northern coast of Maine. Wild blueberries grow well in the thin acidic soil of northern Maine. The plant grows 8-12″ tall and produces a small incredibly tasty berry every other year. It is here that we will stay just as the harvest is starting in earnest.
“No one here.” Lorraine says as we stand in front of the barn. The radiator clinks as it begins to cool down. A low clucking sound comes from the chicken coup. Otherwise silence. I walk around the back of the barn. There’s some people on a hill in the blueberry barrens that are silouhetted against the sky. I watch for a minute. No, it’s not them. These silhouettes amble along, stopping here and there. There is no purpose to their steps. No drive. I walk back to the front of the barn.
“They’ll be along.” I say. “I’ll call Mike while we wait.”
I’m just wrapping up the call when Lorraine says, “Here hey are.” as the dusty blue Toyota pulls into the drive.
“Gotta go. The farmers are here. Talk later.” And press end call.
Wayne and his daughter Lisa get out of the car.
“Sorry folks but we had ta run in ta Machias to grab propane for one o’ the cabins.” Says Wayne
“No problem.” I say
“Lisa’s got a spot for ya up there on the barrens and ya can get up there soon as I move this truck and tractah. Been workin’ on getting’ new tines on it. Lisa ‘ill show ya where while I move this stuff.”
“You been here before right?” Lisa asks.
“Yeah last year.”
“You know where the gravel pit is?”
“Follow me.” She says.
We were gonna have this set up for RV’s this year but we haven’t got to it yet. I just gotta stop doin’ all these things. I mean outside things. Focus on the farm. I was Selectman. Git rid of that but I’m still Assessor. President of the Historical Society, tutor in digital education and drive school bus. Of course there hasn’t been much of that lately. Still I gotta stop doin’ some these things.”
“What are they doing about school here in the Fall?” I ask.
“They haven’t decided for sure but they’re thinking of going back to regular school. Washington County’s done real well the COVID. Just 15 cases and only six active … or three. Sometimes they say six and sometimes three. I think it depends on if they count the ones they sent down to Portland. They’re talkin’about openin’ the schools in September.”
“Anyway, anywhere along in here. You come up the dirt road till you get to the gravel pit there and anywhere along this mowed road is good. We won’t be usin’ it to get out here.”
“You harvesting now?”
“Oh, yeah. We’ll have someone out here rakin’ tomorrow.”
As we walk back Lisa explains that the two cabins they built last year to rent out to summer guests have been booked all of July and most of August. They lost June because of the COVID but are pleased with the results otherwise.
As we round the corner to the front of the barn where Lorraine and Wayne are talking she saying “We just had to diversify. Can’t make it on just blueberries anymore.”
Wayne turns “And we got some of the finest blueberries in Maine.”
“That’s right.” Lisa says. “I won’t skimp on quality. No sir. And that’s only because I’m lazy. I don’t want to open a box of frozen blueberries in January and have to pick through ‘em again before I can make a pie.”
Wayne says, “You seen those ladies on the sorter conveyor last year. Did you notice how much o’ the white conveyor you could see? That’s so there’s lots o’ space for them to pick out the leaves, sticks and bad ones. And that lady at the end, she’s got the control o’ how fast it runs. She sees any bad ones comin’ through she slows it down so the pickers got time to do their job. Other places that conveyor’s solid blue with berries and it don’t slow down. It’s all about the volume so the quality goes down.”
“That’s the only way I’ll do it.” Says Lisa. “Top quality product. That’s our reputation.”
Wayne chimes in, “I go down to the dike, just past Helen’s Restaurant in Machias and sell our berries by the side of the road. I got a sign that says Pie Ready Blueberries. Now this was some years ago. Along come the owner o’ Helen’s and he said ‘Wayne, I gotta pay a woman to sort every box of blueberries that comes in before we can put ’em in our pies. Can you do somethin’ to help me out?’ and I says ‘Well here’s what I’ll do. You try my berries for one week. If you don’t think they’re better you pay me just what you’re payin’ those other folks and we’re done. If you like ‘em you pay my price.’ Helen’s been buyin’ our blueberries since that day and that woman doin’ the sortin’. I think she ended up bein’ a waitress.”