CHERRYFIELD, Maine — Nearly 40 percent of the world’s supply of wild blueberries was harvested in August. And if the crop is as good as expected, it should weigh more than 90 million pounds, which translates to roughly $154.9 million once the berries are frozen and value is added.
Wyman’s of Maine is one of the largest wild blueberry growers and producers of frozen fruit in the world. About 10 miles from the company’s base of operations in Cherryfield, Maine, the landscape opens up and you find yourself driving down a two-lane road with acres of blueberry barrens spreading out on one side and a “blue village” and processing facility on the other.
Behind 1,200 acres of nothing but lowbush blueberries are a line of trees and then more barrens and more barrens. Two miles further down the road are several thousand more acres of barrens.
“It’s different,” said Nat Lindquist, formerly vice president of operations and now a consultant for Wyman’s.
Aside from areas in eastern Canada, these barrens are different from anywhere else in the world.
Overall, the company manages more than 10,000 acres of wild blueberry barrens as well as the fields of other Wyman’s growers in Maine as well as others in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, Canada.
Founded in 1874 by Jasper Wyman and his brother Edward Albert Wyman, Wyman’s was originally focused on canning sardines, lobsters and clams. Jasper Wyman discovered blueberries growing on his private land and added them to the company’s line of goods. The company is still family owned.
Wyman’s hires approximately 400 to 450 seasonal workers annually to bring the crop in.
“Because blueberries are indigenous to the area a lot of people have been growing or handling blueberries for a better part of their lives,” Lindquist said. “Some employees on our farm have been doing this for most of their life. They know it, they do it well. They follow the crops and send money home.”
According to the USDA, almost three-quarters of hired farmworkers work at a single location within 75 miles of their home. Migrant workers “follow the crop” from state to state, working on different crops as the seasons advance
It’s the combination of these two types of workers that make up a majority of the labor force that harvests Maine’s wild blueberry crop. Workers harvesting the blueberry crop can make as much as $150 to $200 a day depending on how much they pick. An average day runs from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
To accommodate all of their migrant labor, Wyman’s has built a dormitory and constructed a village of cabins. In addition to two canteens, a Mexican food truck takes food out to workers in the fields.
The fields are numbered, with some being harvested this year and the rest next year — wild blueberries grow on a two-year cycle. The fields being harvested are further divided with twine to define where a single raker will pick by hand. Brightly colored field boxes sit about waiting to be filled.
In addition to hand picking, Wyman’s uses mechanical harvesters where the land has been leveled and rocks and stumps have been removed.
“These machines only get used three to four weeks out of the year,” Lindquist said. “We’re all hoping for a good crop. They have to make money. We have to make money. It’s seasonal.”
Across from the barrens, the factory includes three processing lines where the freshly harvested berries are organized by date and go through a cleaning process. They then go through a freezing tunnel and laser scanners are used to remove foreign material. Finally, the berries go through final human inspection before being packaged.
Even with all of the state-of-the-art technology, the company still wants human eyes for the final inspection.
The company also maintains a processing facility in Cherryfield, Maine, with one processing line and all of the same equipment. At the Cherryfield plant, fresh fruit is received from the barrens as well as from third-party growers. All the berries are frozen within 24 hours of their arrival at the plant.
The thing the company, as well as other lowbush blueberry growers, have faced recently has been the spotted wing drosophila, a fruit fly originating from Asia, which was found in Maine last year. Many think it has the potential of being a serious pest of berries.
David Yarborough, the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension blueberry specialist and his colleague, Frank Drummond, professor of insect ecology at The University of Maine, have documented significant losses from spotted wing drosophila in California - the fly has reportedly been there since 2008 - and are monitoring the pest and educating Maine growers about insecticides registered for use against the fruit fly.
In early August, a fruit growers alert from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension went out to growers, informing them that spotted wing drosophila had been captured in traps in several areas.
Growers in Washington County responded by attempting to get their harvest in earlier than normal or using insecticides.