EAST MACHIAS, Maine — Kenny Clark hung the handmade “RAKERS WANTED” sign at the end of his driveway this week, a full two weeks earlier than usual.
In his 30 years of working for local blueberry grower Herb Hanscom, Clark said, he has never seen the crop begin to ripen so early.
“It’s easily a week to a week and a half early,” he said Friday. “We’ve raked berries as late as Sept. 26 in the past, but this is the earliest I’ve ever seen them come in.”
Since the bulk of the blueberry rakers are migrant workers who chase food crop harvests from Florida up the Atlantic coast — oranges in Florida, peaches in Georgia, high-bush blueberries in New Jersey — the worry is they might not be here for the start of the season.
“Producers are trying to get word to the crews that the season will be early,” said David Yarborough, blueberry specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
Yarborough said high-bush blueberry producers in North Carolina and New Jersey already are reporting a shortage of harvesters.
This year’s early spring was a double-edged sword for blueberry growers. An extra-warm April and early May had the barrens blooming early, which is pushing the crop to ripen early. But because the bloom was so early, a deep frost around May 10 did extensive damage to some fields.
Yarborough said Quebec is reporting a 50 percent loss due to the frost, while Maine’s yield could be down by up to 20 million pounds.
“Maine produced about 88.5 million pounds last year,” Yarborough said. “Now, after the frost, we are predicting a 70 [million] to 80 million-pound crop. We took a pretty good hit.”
Yarborough said that blooms in southern and central Maine blueberry fields were heavily damaged, while the more northern barrens in Washington County — those townships located north of Route 9 — also were struck hard.
Yarborough said he hopes the smaller crop will help increase prices.
“Last year the average field price was 35 cents per pound,” he said. “The year before, in 2008, it was 61 cents. As long as we can produce a quality crop, we can be hopeful.”
He said the price Maine producers obtain ultimately would be based on the price for cultivated berries, which anchor and flood the commercial market.
At some small operations, such as Moonhill Farm in Whiting, Linda Beal said she presses her children and other family members into service during the harvest. “We can pretty much handle it with family,” she said Friday.
But the availability of a timely and adequate labor pool remains a concern for many large processors.
David Bell of the Maine Wild Blueberry Association said folks who were unable to find jobs in the hospitality and tourism industries because of a slow economy may be able to turn to raking for their summer wages.
Yarborough said that although the harvest is quite early, it should not affect the health of the bushes.
“The blueberries don’t really care what the calendar says,” he said.