"Picking Blueberries Isn’t What It Used to Be," by Alpha Unit

People from Washington County, Maine, which borders the Canadian province of New Brunswick, will readily tell you about the natural beauty of the area – and about how friendly and hardworking the people are. But some of them will also tell you not to move there unless you don’t need to work.

Maine’s six “Rim Counties,” the rural counties just south of the Canadian border, are among the poorest counties in New England. Washington County has more unemployment and poverty than the rest. Paul Constant, who hails from Maine, says that the popular conception of Maine as nothing but lighthouses and lobsters is far from the truth. Once you get away from the relatively affluent parts of southern Maine, you see how tough it can really be to live there.

But Washington County, the poorest part of Maine, is special. It is the wild blueberry capital of the world.

Maine has 44,000 acres of wild blueberries that bring in about $250 million in annual revenue. Cultivated blueberries from other states dwarf the production of wild blueberries that grow on Washington County’s “barrens,” says Philip Conkling. These areas got their name because only blueberries and a few other plants could grow on the sandy soils left by the receding glacier. A spokeswoman for the Maine Wild Blueberry Commission told him that Maine grows a very special product but most people don’t know the difference between a wild blueberry and a cultivated one.

Philip Conkling offers a hint: the fat watery ones with less flavor are the cultivated ones.

In the summer of 1974 Conkling jumped at the chance to make some money raking blueberries at the Deblois barrens in Washington County, as part of a crew assembled by some neighbors who also owned blueberry land. He says that the wild blueberry harvest was the one time of year when just about anyone between six and 60 could earn a small pile of cash “to spend like a grasshopper or save for the coming winter.”

One week later I was in the back of Ralph Jr.’s two-ton, stake-body truck with a motley crew of neighbors, lurching off Highway 193 onto dirt roads that curved around endless vistas of blueberry fields on the barrens. When we stopped, Ralph handed me a bucket and a blueberry rake. He explained that when I had filled my bucket, I was to bring it over to a hand-cranked winnowing machine to separate the leaves and stems from the berries and then pour the berries carefully into wooden boxes. For this, I would make $2.50 a box. Seemed simple enough.

It turned out to be back-breaking work.

For generations most of the laborers in the blueberry fields were Native Americans, from the local Passamaquoddy tribe and Mi’kmaq from Canada. But with the expansion of the industry, blueberry farmers started hiring migrant workers to increase their labor force. Since the 1960s the harvest has been picked mainly by migrants, most of whom are Mexican, Mexican-American, Filipino-American, Jamaican, Haitian, Honduran, and Guatemalan. They work alongside Passamaquoddy and Mi’kmaq families.

Still, there are fewer migrant laborers in the barrens than there used to be. Since the 1990s growers have been using mechanical harvesters. Some blueberry operations are almost completely mechanized, and others are planning to make the transition. These machines can harvest about 10 times what a typical person can harvest with a hand-held blueberry rake.
Some analysts say that mechanization is the consequence of uncertainty over immigration reform. Without any long-term clarity on what the law will be, growers can’t easily plan for even five years ahead.

What about hiring native Mainers to replace migrant workers? Not really an option, according to some growers.

“There are people who say if we just paid more, Americans would do the work. But that’s a joke,” said Ed Flanagan, president of Jasper Wyman & Son Inc., Maine’s second-largest blueberry grower. Flanagan says hard-working pickers make as much as $20 an hour here, almost three times Maine’s minimum wage of $7.50.

Even though Washington County has high unemployment, the seasonal jobs in the blueberry fields find few takers among local residents.

Another grower works with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to make sure its seasonal staff are in the US legally, but a spokesman says every year it’s a gamble. “You never know if enough people are going to show up to get the job done,” he says.