Hand rakers, migrants being replaced by mechanization in Down East Maine’s blueberry barrens

Posted Aug. 29, 2014, at 5:28 a.m.
Last modified Aug. 29, 2014, at 2:57 p.m.

As Dave Bell drove on the gravel road stretching across vast blueberry barrens being harvested in Columbia recently, he noted how the industry has changed over the decades.

The back roads leading to the blueberry barrens used to be clogged with traffic during the blueberry harvest, recalled Bell, general manager of Cherryfield Foods, when the industry relied heavily on temporary laborers to rake blueberries by hand.

As he drove across the company’s lands, however, the most traffic was generated by tractors with mechanical harvesting equipment driving from one area to another.

Laborers — particularly migrant workers — raking by hand are still an important factor in the state’s blueberry harvest, although their numbers continue to diminish.

There are various reasons for the shift to increased mechanization, including the reluctance of local residents to do the work, the difficulty in obtaining and using migrant laborers, and the benefits of mechanical harvesting.

Between 1,300 and 1,800 migrant workers have been employed in the blueberry harvest in Washington County this year, estimated Jorge Acero, Maine’s migrant and seasonal farmworkers advocate. The exact number of migrant workers is difficult to ascertain, he said, because of the way agencies classify and count the workers depending on whether they are working in the fields or in processing plants. Some companies already have concluded harvesting operations while others are wrapping up.

What is clear, however, is the number of migrant workers employed in the blueberry industry is in decline. The state Department of Labor operates a center for rakers in Columbia annually. The center, set up in the Columbia municipal building, which was open this year from Aug. 4-19, is staffed by employees and volunteers representing various agencies and nonprofits that provide services to migrant workers.

The number of migrant workers using the center has been in steady decline the past 10 years, according to figures provided by the Maine Migrant Health Program, which provides a mobile health clinic at the site. The center served about 1,600 people in 2004, 1,265 in 2010. This year officials estimate the number at 900.

Those figures appear to be borne out by the experience of others in the industry. For example, the Passamaquoddy Wild Blueberry Co., based in Columbia Falls, employed about 510 rakers this season. In 2000, the figure was more than 800, according to an official for the company, which has tapped members of the Micmac Tribe in Canada for migrant labor in the past.

“We just can’t get them,” said Grace Falzarano, the company’s bookkeeper. “What used to be a tradition is going by the wayside.”

Dave Whitney has employed about 30 migrant workers this season. A year ago, he hired 70.

“In the past, it has been difficult to get enough hand rakers,” acknowledged Whitney, who has other businesses in addition to blueberry operations.

Whitney has a niche business using laborers raking by hand to harvest other people’s blueberry lands. In fact, he is doing more of that this year, Whitney said.

However, Whitney Blueberries has steadily invested in improving its blueberry barrens to make them more suitable for harvesting by tractors. About 50-60 percent of the company’s land has been leveled.

Whitney’s company bought its first mechanical harvester last year. “That’s working out extremely well for us,” he said. The equipment eliminated the need to hire about 10-12 laborers to rake blueberries by hand.

Wild blueberries were Maine’s No. 2 cash crop in 2011-12, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Washington County is the leading producer. The state’s wild blueberry harvest averages about 86 million pounds per year. Prices averaged 75 cents per pound in 2012 for revenue of $69 million, according to USDA statistics.

The trend toward mechanization in the blueberry industry began in the 1970s when oil prices spiked, according to Bell, who was executive director of the Maine Wild Blueberry Commission for nearly 20 years before going to work for Cherryfield Foods earlier this year. Oil was used to burn blueberry barrens to control their growth and manage weeds. When oil prices jumped, however, the industry quickly studied whether it could use mechanical means — mowing — to prune blueberry bushes. The use of mechanized equipment also has led to owners of blueberry barrens improving their lands by removing rocks and leveling fields — improvements that make the terrain more suitable for tractors.

There are a number of reasons for the increasing shift toward mechanization, noted people who were interviewed for this article.

Mechanical harvesting is efficient, Bell noted. It is faster and helps preserve fruit quality, mainly because contractors work through the night, harvesting cooler, firmer blueberries, which hold up better.

Between 97 and 99 percent of Cherryfield’s crop is now harvested by machines, according to Bell.

“It’s a hell of a job getting (migrant workers) here,” said Ed Hennessey, another grower, and there are numerous bureaucratic hurdles farmers have to jump through. “The paperwork is mind boggling,” he added. The last time he employed migrant workers was about four or five years ago when he hired four.

“It isn’t just hiring people that’s difficult,” Whitney explained. “It’s lots and lots of regulations.” Managing and housing migrant workers, as well as risk, regulations and other factors “point to it becoming more and more difficult to employ people in laborious conditions,” Whitney said.

Many people will argue growers don’t pay enough, according to Whitney; that’s why they can’t get enough rakers. “That’s not true,” he said. His rakers averaged nearly $20 an hour this season.

Workers raking blueberries by hand typically are paid piece rate wages by the box. A good raker can earn more than $300 per day, Acero said.

One of the region’s biggest employers of migrant workers for the blueberry harvest is Jasper Wyman & Son. Wyman, which employed about 400 plus migrant workers this season, Acero said; about half are rakers and the other half work at the company’s plants or facilities. Wyman has a processing facility in Deblois adjacent to a larger residential compound for migrant workers.

Ed Flanagan, president and CEO of Jasper Wyman & Son, declined to be interviewed although he noted he has discussed the company’s position on migrant labor policy with the news media in the past and has granted access to its migrant labor camp.

President Barack Obama and Congress “have made a royal mess out of it,” he said via email. Wyman’s has lobbied in the past in favor of a bill that would allow more seasonal workers for agriculture and provide a pathway to citizenship, Flanagan said.

The blueberry harvest attracts the largest number of migrant and seasonal workers in Maine, according to Acero. The other harvest that draws the greatest number of migrant workers is broccoli, although it is much smaller. Growers in Aroostook County in the area of Caribou, Limestone and Presque Isle hire about 250 migrant laborers starting in late April through late October with the peak harvest in late July.

Some apple growers in Androscoggin, Kennebec, Oxford and Franklin counties also hire migrant workers for harvesting; Acero estimated the number at less than 50. Other than that, vegetable growers hire an average of about two workers per farm.

Some migrant workers may move on from one harvest to another, and some may find work making Christmas wreaths in the early fall.

The culture has changed, observed Bell and Whitney.

Whitney began getting acquainted with raking blueberries for his grandfather when he was 6-years-old. By the time he was 12-years-old, he was raking every day — all day — during the harvest. “And other kids were, too,” he said, youths and college students. Families did it together.

“People don’t want to do that any more,” said Whitney, who began turning to migrant workers in the late 1990s. “There’s probably various reasons why, and I don’t try to figure that out. You just can’t rely on hiring people to rake locally. They don’t want to do it.”

“People used to cobble together a living,” said Bell, by doing seasonal work. That might be raking blueberries in August, ‘tipping’ (gathering evergreen branches) or making wreaths in the fall, or working in the fishing or forest products industries.

“But that’s changed,” Bell said.

Ultimately, for growers it’s about increasing efficiency and controlling costs, according to Whitney.

“In the end, a farmer is trying to make money,” Whitney said, “and it is extraordinarily difficult to make money in any business, and the blueberry business is no different. Costs keep increasing. New or changing regulations — increasingly stringent, not less stringent — require compliance. You work every little angle to become more efficient.”