Friday, August 30, 2013

The Story With Blueberries

Some friends of mine from Barcelona, Spain, who have spent the summer working on farms in the area had asked me: "What is the story with blueberries in Maine?" I changed the subject to the benefits of antioxidant-rich foods, suddenly realizing I had always taken this tiny commodity for granted.

Coincidentally, I stopped by the Welcome Table the other day to meet with Kara Ibarguen, and while we were cutting corn off the cob in preparation for their evening community meal (Wednesdays 3-6pm), one of the volunteers spoke of a job opportunity she was contemplating at Wyman's of Maine, the leading frozen blueberry operation that employs a large number of local and immigrant families.

From the conversation I gleaned that considering a job in the Cherryfield factory of Wyman's of Maine was not going to be comfortable in the least. The conversation became desperate as we all imagined her working 12-hour night shifts in an attempt to cover her bills. Was this really her only option? Would her health be affected?

One of the other volunteers, who had worked at Merrill Blueberry Farms of Hancock, Maine, explained to us what it was like to work in the laboratory of one of these factories, constantly taking samples for quality control and classifying the different grades of blueberries; a very deliberate and thorough process that these producers take very seriously. There are three different blueberry quality classifications: the Grade A blueberries sold primarily to the Japanese market, Grade B sold fresh or fresh-frozen all over the world, and Grade C used for food processors to produce juice, yogurt or ice cream.

I marvelled at these ladies, embarrassed at how much Robert McCloskey's iconic Blueberries for Sal had been a part of my upbringing, and yet how little I really knew about how blueberries have sculpted the socio-economic landscape of Maine.

I'd always heard that raking blueberries was hard work. My father raked for a few summers growing up, and said it was back breaking; however it was such good pay that as a teenager he had even imagined getting rich off it. Questions started to form in my head about our immigrant communities and their work in the blueberry industry, and the evolution of how these industries had once sustained our local communities of people - in some cases the same people who are now food insecure. 

Mary Hildebrand from the Simmering Pot community meal-site called me a couple of weeks ago to let me know her blueberry patch was ready to be gleaned.

We raked for an hour...

...and we sorted for five!

I arrived at the Emmaus Center the next day for Saturday's Free Produce and Bread Day with various donations: 50 lbs of orange blossom tomatoes from College of the Atlantic's Community Garden, some leftover cucumbers from Thursday's Produce and Bread Day, and 30 lbs of blueberries from the Gleaning Initiative's own harvest.

It turns out, I had been unable to fully separate the leaves and stems from the blueberries, and was determined to get some answers. Along with laughter at my self-effacing story, I got more than answers: "You go like this!" A woman picked up one of the rakes I had borrowed from my father's dining room wall, bent her knees and her torso, letting her arms hang down a couple feet from the ground and began brushing the air left to right drawing a figure eight through the imaginary blueberry bushes beneath her. She then held the rake above her head at an angle and let the wind blow the leaves and stems of my mind to a whole new level of appreciation as I realized that the blueberries we had picked were rightfully falling full-circle into the hands of people who had once worked so hard for blueberries I may have eaten in the past.


(left) Susannah Taylor from Bread & Circuses
Marta GarcĂ­a-Bragado from Educant Saltamartins
 Alejandra Coll from Asilvestrada (right)

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