September 22, 2017
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The backache behind your Maine blueberries

By Alex Acquisto, BDN Staff
Updated:

As I scanned hundreds of individual blueberries that rolled past me on a conveyor belt at Spruce Mountain Farm, I felt dizzy and the faintest bit of nausea.

I had been warned by the owner, Molly Sholes, that feeling “seasick” was a side effect from working on the belt, known colloquially as the “pickover belt,” named for the fact that workers “pick over” the blueberries on it.

The feeling of being seasick comes from the constant motion of the pickover belt — similar to a conveyor belt at a grocery store cash register — while trying to scan hundreds, maybe even thousands, of individual blueberries as they moved past me.

The pickover belt is part of a larger winnowing machine. Blueberries are fed into one side, where they filter down onto what look like harp strings that sift anything not blueberry-sized, before the blueberries roll onto the pickover belt.

The belt is the final step before the blueberries are packaged. My job, along with four other women working it that mid-August morning, was to spot and remove any stems, leaves, bugs or any other unappetizing detritus from the blueberries before they were poured into their containers and trucked off to sell.

“Anything that you don’t want showing up in your blueberry pancakes,” Cathy Ames, fellow pickover belt scanner, told me — that’s the standard for what stays and what gets discarded.

In order to get the pickover belt job done as quickly as possible, whenever enough blueberries from Sholes’ nearly 50 acres of blueberry fields were picked, it would be an all-hands-on-deck affair. This blueberry season for Sholes — which was short, lasting just three weeks — the mostly all-female staff worked the pickover belt Monday through Friday and sometimes on a Sunday.

Blueberries that were smashed, unripe or attached to little stems were picked off and tossed into a nearby bucket. Occasionally a berry with an insect or a worm on it floated by, and it was discarded just the same.

Watching how the others did it, I rolled my hand over blueberries as they passed — lightly enough to feel any stems but not hard enough to squash the berries. This made it easier on my eyes and my stomach.

I also quickly learned that indulging in the blueberries was part of the job. “You don’t leave here until your teeth are blue,” Georgia Woodman of Owls Head said, taking a few blueberries off the moving belt and eating them.

“I paint my nails during blueberry season because they get so bad,” Ames of West Rockport said, referring to the blue stain from handling mass quantities of blueberries.

There was something very simple and intimate about sitting in such close proximity with Sholes and her employees, participating in an activity that, because of Sholes’ dated machinery and small employee pool, probably was very similar to a season’s harvest 50 or 60 years ago.

Sholes bought the modest West Rockport blueberry farm with her husband in 1971.

Stuck at home while her husband worked, Sholes wanted to find work that was her own.

“I wanted something that I wanted,” she said. “And I loved blueberries, [and] I thought, ‘Oh, that will work.’”

They didn’t have electricity or running water until the mid 1980s. Much of the equipment used today Sholes bought in the 1970s and ’80s.

During the summer and also the off-season, Sholes and her team make jams, chutneys and other blueberry preserves to sell.

Sholes picked up a blueberry with something white on top.

“Maggot,” she said neutrally, dropping the blueberry in a white bucket at our feet.

The art of raking and packing blueberries has been industrialized from the early days of hand-raking, bent over in the hot sun for hours. At some smaller operations such as Sholes’ where fields haven’t entirely been de-rocked — a rocky field prevents larger machinery from raking blueberries — hand rakers are used.

Blueberry picking, like any farm job, is monotonous and at times, tedious. Sholes, when she can find them, still employs kids around the ages of 12 or 13 to harvest blueberries. Otherwise her employees are a pastiche of about a dozen people she has known for several years.

“A good raker can rake it clean and dry,” Sholes said, pointing to the baskets whose berries were less trodden down with leaves and twigs.

She has mostly run the operation on her own, raking up until she turned 82, when her knees “went bad.” Over the years, Sholes, like many blueberry farm owners in the area, primarily employed local kids who wanted summer jobs to rake blueberries.

It’s hard to get kids to work the blueberry fields these days, Sholes’ longtime employee Charlene Fish said.

“No kids like to work now; they’re all in front of their computer screens.”

In the prime years, Sholes employed no fewer than a dozen local kids. This year and in recent years, she’s lucky to get three or four.

Wanting a feel for the process from beginning to end, I grabbed a wooden basket and a box-rake and headed up the dirt road to the sloped blueberry fields, where a mother and her two kids were raking.

The sun was getting warmer as it neared noon. Sholes told me it’s better to harvest blueberries in the early part of the day, before they get too warm from the sun.

The best way to hand-rake blueberries, I was told, is standing, leaning toward the ground with my my knees slightly bent.

The correct method is to rake in a forward motion in a straight line, so one can rake almost like a lawn mower cuts grass — in methodical strips, assuring no blueberries are missed.

The work is rhythmic and quiet, even though there were others raking in the field, they were 50 or so yards away.

Larger blueberry farms typically have their fields de-rocked, so machine-powered rakes can come through and rake more smoothly. Sholes’ fields are peppered with rocks and ledges, around which, she said, are plants that often produce the tastiest blueberries.

Once I started raking, it didn’t take long for me to feel the strain in my hamstrings and my lower back.

“It’s a strenuous occupation,” Sholes said.

“It can be very hard on your body, particularly on your back. Some of the hardest work is carrying the baskets down the hill” to the winnowing machine, she said.

“When you push yourself, you feel it in the morning,” Jessica Crosby, teacher and mother of the two kids raking, said.

Crosby, the mother of 10-year-old Audrey and Andrew Pruell, 15, also raking, said part of what she liked about the work is “if you’re raking hard, you get more blueberries and more money” — this was a good incentive for her kids, who tended to, probably like most, lose interest quickly.

Andrew and Audrey were using push rakes, which can just be pushed and don’t require the rakers to bend over.

“It’s about finding the right spot — flatter with fewer rocks,” Andrew said.

They typically rake a few days per week for three or four hours. On a good day, Crosby can rake four to five buckets and her kids six or seven, at a rate of $5 or $6 apiece.

The sun was directly overhead, and my blueberry bucket was almost full. I didn’t think I would be able to carry it back down the hill to the barn if I filled much higher, so I called it quits.

In the barn, Fish weighed my bucket, which had fewer leaves and twigs than I expected: 14.5 pounds, or about $3.20, not even enough to buy a quart of blueberries from the local grocery store.

 


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