Bountiful blue fields: Harvest under way in Washington County

Posted Aug. 14, 2009, at 5:52 p.m.

MACHIAS, Maine — The mechanical and hand rakers have been deep into the blueberry barrens this week as the annual wild blueberry harvest gets under way.

Despite many weeks of rain, growers are predicting a good season, and if the color of the fields — a haze of bright blue — is any indication, the harvest should be bountiful.

David Yarborough, a blueberry specialist at the University of Maine, said Wednesday that this is the first year he can recall that the harvest did not begin on Aug. 1.

“They waited until the second week,” he said.

This was because rain and lack of sun slowed the berries’ ripening process.

“The berries are at least one week behind, if not more,” Yarborough said. “Still, they are coming in pretty good. It looks like we will have more than two years ago but less than last year.”

Hand rakers in Township 25 earlier this week declared it a good season, with one raker on course to fill 200 blueberry boxes in one day.

An average raker can make $300 to $400 a day in the fields, while skilled rakers can quickly double that, according to crew leaders. The hand rakers are paid $2.25 for every 23½-pound box, and most will fill at least 100 boxes a day.

When the harvest is over, the Canadian natives — many who save their vacation days all year to rake the berries — head home to their full-time jobs, and the migrant workers move on to western Maine and New York state to harvest apples, pumpkins and potatoes.

Last season was a banner year for Maine’s wild blueberry producers, with nearly 90 million pounds of berries harvested. Wild blueberries are a $250 million economic engine in Maine, most of it in Washington and Hancock counties.

Experts forecast last month that this year’s crop, including harvests in Maine, Nova Scotia, Quebec, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, could top 240 million pounds.

The industry provides 2,450 jobs and nearly $9 million in local and state tax revenues, according to the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine.

On Tim and Lydia Beal’s organic Moonhill Farm in Whiting, the berries are still ripening.

“We are not quite ready to harvest yet,” Lydia Beal said Wednesday. “They are a little later in ripening and, also, they seem to be a bit fragile. They are not as firm and I think it is because of the lack of sun this summer.”

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