by Barbara Ross
Last week, in honor of the launch of our blog-mate Edith Maxwell’s Local Food Mystery, A Tine to Live, A Tine to Die, all the wicked cozy authors wrote about farming, gardening and local foods. I wasn’t up on the blog last week, so here’s my contribution.
I’ve been doing a lot of research into wild blueberry cultivation. Boiled Over, the second book in my Maine Clambake Mystery series, takes place in early to mid-August, peak of the Maine tourist season and the time of the blueberry harvest. Blueberries play a big role in the story.
Wild, or low bush, blueberries are the tiny ones, cousins of the more familiar, larger, cultivated high bush berries. Though their growing zone is wide, low bush blueberries are commercially harvested at scale only in Maine and eastern Canada. Maine produces 38% of all wild blueberries and 15% of all blueberries, wild and domestic, in North America.
The blueberries are called wild because they’re not raised from seeds or grafts. They grow in their natural habitat–sandy, acidic soil left by receding glaciers, not good for much else. Though Maine blueberries are not cultivated, fields are mowed or burned and then left unpicked every other year to prevent the bushes from getting so dense the berries don’t get sun and to get rid of pests. Since two-thirds of the bush is underground, mowing or burning doesn’t hurt them. Weeds are controlled by herbicides and fields are fertilized. Also, bees are brought in to pollinate fields in the spring. So Maine blueberries are like Maine lobster, a natural resource that is managed, but not farmed.
This approach results in a rich biodiversity. Any given field contains thousands or even millions of diverse strains which taste slightly different and ripen at different times, meaning the box you buy will have a depth and richness of mingled tastes. Cultivated berries are typically only a couple of strains per field and all ripen at once.
Increasingly, low bush berries are picked mechanically, but many fields are still picked by hand. Pickers use a rake that looks like a dustpan with a comb on it. Among those who come to pick are members of the Mi’kmaq tribe who travel to Maine every year from eastern Canada. They harvest fields owned by Maine’s Passamaquoddy tribe, who have agreed that they will leave fields for hand-picking as long as the Mi’kmaqs continue to come. For the Mi’kmaqs, berry picking in Maine is such a long tradition, no one knows when it began. Though the work is back-breaking, it’s also a social time to see old friends, play cards and music in the camps and spend time together. It’s like your family camping trip–if your parents picked 75 to 100 quarts of blueberries everyday before they got down to having fun.
David Stress Brooks photographed the Maine blueberry harvest for more than two decades, raking alongside the people whose images he captured. The photos have a haunting beauty and are well worth giving a look, here.