DEBLOIS — With the annual blueberry harvest about to shift into high gear, the weekend brought an influx of migrants to western Washington County.
The new arrivals’ school-eligible children helped boost Monday’s enrollment to 232 at a harvest school sponsored by the Maine Migrant Education Program at Milbridge Elementary School. The Monday enrollment was one of the highest recorded since August 1975, when the annual blueberry-harvest school opened in Washington County.
The numbers of the newcomers also were reflected at a “rakers’ center” at Columbia Town Hall, where social, medical and legal services have been available since July 30 to migrant and seasonal agricultural workers and their families. According to a spokesman, the center began processing clients at 8 a.m. Monday and remained busy throughout the afternoon.
On Monday, harvest crews began to deploy on fields near the Deblois airstrip that are owned by the C&D Corp., a landowning subsidiary of the Jasper Wyman and Son Co. Most of the company’s 14 crews had been at work daily since Aug. 1 on the Silsby Plain in Aurora and on the Pork Brook barrens in Township 22 of Hancock County.
The blueberry-freezer plants operated by the Wyman Co. in Cherryfield and Deblois began a schedule of round-the-clock operation Monday. Blueberry processing began July 25 at the Cherryfield plant.
The Wyman company’s major harvest effort will be concentrated on the company-owned Deblois barrens. In Columbia and the adjacent townships, the harvest is being conducted by Cherryfield Foods Inc., which operates a freezer plant on Stillwater Road in Cherryfield.
Also at work Monday on fields in Centerville and Township 19 were crews employed by the Northeastern Blueberry Co. of Columbia Falls. In the unorganized territories near Columbia Falls and on fields in that town and in Centerville and Jonesboro, other crews were busy Monday harvesting berries for Allen’s Blueberry Freezer Inc. of Ellsworth.
Among the earliest blueberries of the 1990 crop to have been harvested in western Washington County were those grown on an upland site in the Unionville District of Steuben, owned by the Maine Wild Blueberry Co. of Machias, where a crew went to work July 30.
Laborers on the blueberry fields of western Washington County are being paid to harvest the 1990 crop at a rate that ranges from nine cents to 12 cents a pound, depending on how well the fields have been cleared of weeds.
The pickers at the high end of the pay scale are finding the blueberries by battling their way through a population of competing plants that includes goldenrod, aster, sweet fern, black chokeberry, sheep laurel, rosy dogbane, bush honeysuckle and an occasional tree. The laurel, a hardy and prolific plant, is a botanical cousin of the blueberry.
At the low end of the pay scale, pickers who have the twin advantages of harvesting experience and a weed-free, well-vegetated field reportedly have filled as many as 80 half-bushel boxes of blueberries in one day of work.