When the glaciers receded from Maine after the last ice age, blueberries were one of the first plants to populate the landscape. Wild blueberries can grow in highly acidic soils, where few other crops flourish. Native Americans started burning the fields, to discourage weed growth, giving the blueberries full sun and have been harvesting them for 1,000 years. Globally, Maine is now the largest producer of wild blueberries and produces 10% of the nation's blueberries, including both wild and cultivated crops.
Following in their footsteps, modern Mainers are maintaining these fields, creating a unique ecotourism opportunity to harvest this crop in the middle of the summer on U-pick farms. For a few short weeks, Maine visitors can take part in this tasty local tradition, that is deeply embedded in Maine's history.
My family went blueberry picking this week at Staples Homestead in Stockton Springs, Maine. This organic farm has been in operations since 1838 and is family run, with members there to greet us and provide metal rakes. Because they are low-bush blueberries, a rake is an easy way to scoop and pour the blueberries into boxes or a bucket. Even the younger members of group were able to rake, but they often took long munching breaks.
The homestead cultivates a few varieties of wild blueberries. They weren't planted, however the fields are maintained for ideal growing conditions. This is important for producing higher yields. For example, if blueberries grow in the forest where the plants are shaded, they produce little if any fruit.
Blueberry plants grow in a 2-year production cycle. The first year is dedicated to vegetative growth. The second year is for pollination and fruit bearing. Two to four beehives per acre are commonly brought in to supplement the work of native pollinators and help boost yields. With a short two to four-week window to harvest the crop, migrant farm workers often assist in the process.
Wild blueberries are smaller in size than cultivated varieties, and have wider variation in color and flavor. Their high skin-to-pulp ratio makes them more antioxidant rich as well. These indigenous blueberries grow exclusively in Maine and Eastern Canada on large stretches of barrens.
After the harvest, fields are mowed or burned, and the cycle begins again. Although burning has been a common practice, pruning is growing in popularity because repeated burning can result in a declining harvest. Conversely, burning can kill some common pests, which can assist in pest management.
There are 44,000 acres of wild blueberries in production in Maine, with half being available for harvest in a given year. Coastal Maine boasts the largest production, with lower concentrations inland.
There are several features that make wild blueberries a sustainable food option. Because the fruit is wild, it hasn't been genetically modified. With blueberries flourishing with a pH level of 4, they grown on soils that would probably otherwise be considered unfit for agricultural production without amendments. Winter snow cover, the amount of precipitation, the prevalence of pests, lack of damaging frost, and rates of pollination all impact the harvest size and quality.
The blueberry fields require little fertilizer use, and are a low-input crop, and many wild blueberry are grown on small to mid-sized farms. Research has revealed the impressive nutrient density and antioxidant value of wild blueberries, helping to fuel demand.
The blueberry harvest is the talk of the town and a source of pride in Down East Maine each summer. An August visit to coastal Maine is sure to be filled with fresh blueberries and slices of blueberry pie. Town populations temporarily expand as farm workers come in for the harvest and visitors gather at the Machias Wild Blueberry Festival this weekend.
Image Credit: Sarah Lozanova
Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.