Sticky fingers, sweet blue heaven, and berries to the moon and back. Such was the sum of my experience working on a family-owned blueberry farm on the mid-coast of Maine.
And to this day, I can still sort through a pint of blueberries in a couple of seconds flat – with my eyes closed.
“Wear Grubby Clothes”
I arrived on my first day ready to rake blueberries in the sunshine. It was early August, and already the leaves on the trees near Camden, Maine, had started to turn gold around the edges – a sure sign that the short summer season was waning.
But for now, it was still warm. I had answered an ad for farm workers in the newspaper – this was back in the day – and I was ready to harvest blueberries in the sunshine.
Not Quite Picture-Perfect
I was expecting a quaint New England farm with a red barn and perhaps a few berry-loving horses to pet. In reality, it was more like a bushy field, and I was directed indoors to the processing part of the operation. It looked and felt like a factory, not a blueberry farm. The manager ushered me toward a towering machine.
“You’re not strong enough to rake, and besides, you wouldn’t want to even if you could. You’ll be a ‘sorter’.”
Fair enough – but I noticed the workers were cleanly divided. The “strong” aka male workers hit the fields outside with the odd-looking berry-picking rakes. The “not strong enough” workers – the females – stayed inside to sort.
The Blueberries Never. Stop. Coming.
I took my position at the edge of a conveyor belt attached to a large machine with another woman in her early 20s. There were three more sets of sorters and machines in the room, and the process worked like this:
- The rakers brought in their haul from the fields and dumped the blueberries into the far end of machine, which shook the fruit to dispose of any big impurities.
- The little blue balls tumbled onto a slowly moving conveyor belt, where it was my job to pick any remaining foreign bodies: leaves, little stones, twigs, bugs, crappy berries, and anything else that wasn’t a well-rounded, wild Maine blueberry.
- At the end of the conveyor belt, the berries tumbled into plastic clamshells, where they were packed up and packed into cardboard produce crates by a worker with seniority.
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- The crates went into boxes, the boxes went on trucks, and the trucks delivered the blueberries to grocery stores and restaurants around the region.
Every two hours, we received a 15-minute break. We rushed to use the bathroom (a porta potty), wash our hands, make a phone call, and talk about what happened last night – and what was going to happen tonight.
Then it was back to another two-hour session at the conveyor belt.
What I Learned: Close Your Eyes
I felt a bit like Lucy during my time working on the blueberry farm, but I did learn a few things:
- The secret to sorting blueberries is to use your sense of touch, not your sense of sight. It’s easier to feel the things that shouldn’t be there than it is to see them. In fact, you wanted to keep your eyes away from the conveyor belt as much as possible. Otherwise, later that night you would see blueberries rolling past on the back of your eyelids every time you shut your eyes. For hours.
- Smaller blueberries have more flavor. People tend to go for the biggest berries, but the tastiest ones are the smallest.
- Blueberry pancakes must always be eaten with pure maple syrup – not commercial, corn syrup. Trust.
- “Wild” as in “Wild Maine Blueberries” is just a marketing term. It’s not like someone has gone out into the forest to hunt for blueberry bushes amongst the moose. These low-bush blueberries are cultivated on farms.
- “Hand-picked” is a top-dollar sales term – but it takes some massive manual labor. One of the “strong” workers let me try raking blueberries in the sunshine one afternoon – just like I had imagined before I arrived on the farm. It was a nightmare. Hot, sweaty, dirty, difficult. Have you ever harvested anything by hand? Try it sometime – you’ll gain a whole new appreciation for the phrase “hand-picked.”
The best part about my job on the blueberry farm? The blueberries, of course. Every night, one of the “not strong enough” sorters would take home several pints of berries, and return the next morning with a treat.
Blueberry pie. Blueberry scones. Blueberry coffee cake. Blueberry muffins! Blueberry cobbler! Did I mention the blueberry pie? I was in blueberry heaven.
After two weeks at the conveyor belt and countless blueberry dreams, the season wasn’t quite finished – but I was.
I said goodbye to the sticky-handed sorters, closing the lid on my blueberry farm adventure in Maine.
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