June 19, 2019

Late-arriving berry harvest begins in Down East barrens

Washington County’s wild blueberry land, which provides more than 70 percent of the state’s annual harvest, will be alive with action this week as harvesting machines, bosses and raking crews tackle the fields.

Cherryfield Foods Inc., the state’s largest grower and processor, sends its work force into the fields starting this morning. Jasper Wyman & Son of Milbridge got a jump on the work by starting its harvest Sunday.

Those two companies own the bulk of the inland barrens, which have benefited from more sun and warmer temperatures the past two weeks.

Still, starting a harvest on Aug. 8 or 9 is late for the barrens, where harvests traditionally start closer to Aug. 1, or even in the last week of July.

Growers on the coast, from Addison, Jonesport and Jonesboro through Machias, Cutler and Eastport, are still four or five days away from their fields being ready. Cooler temperatures, sea breezes and significant fog have kept those berries from ripening as quickly.

Most growers are expecting a disappointing year. Many are forecasting a statewide yield of just 40 million pounds, roughly half of last year’s yield of 80 million pounds

“It just doesn’t look that good anywhere,” said Del Emerson, farm manager at Blueberry Hill Experimental Station, the University of Maine facility in Jonesboro. “Most people are reporting spotty fields.”

Fields that usually produce 7,000 or 8,000 pounds of berries per acre in a typical year are likely to produce as few as 2,000 or 3,000 pounds this summer, Emerson said.

That means this harvest may take as little as two weeks to complete versus the four or five weeks that it usually takes.

The smaller, shorter harvest makes for tougher going for the rakers, who work the rockier or sloped fields where the mechanical harvesters can’t be used.

“It cuts down on the rakers’ income if they’re bringing in fewer boxes,” Emerson said. “They may be getting paid more per box, but they’re still not going to earn the same. They still have to rake the whole field and cover the same amount of ground.”

The harvest Down East depends on the work of as many as 5,000 to 7,000 laborers, largely a mix of Hispanics who come north and Indians who come across from Canada each August. While no solid figures for immigrant workers are calculable at this point in the season, there is a palpable feeling locally that the numbers are nowhere near the traditional turnout.

A rakers’ center opens each July 28 as a place where laborers can get assistance for many social needs. In the Columbia town hall, rebuilt and reopened after a fire, the center is supported by state and federal agencies and organizations that handle medical, legal, food and family needs.

Last year, as many as 600 rakers came through the door on the first day. Last week, fewer than 80 rakers appeared on the center’s opening, although the numbers have been growing as the start of the harvest loomed closer.

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