The low-bush blueberry (Vaccinium typhoidium or V. angustifolium) is native to Hope. Maine's Amerindians gathered these wild berries. They used them in their pemmican, the high-energy, not-so-perishable food that hunters and warriors took on their expeditions. No doubt, Hope's early settlers gathered and ate them too.
There have been many steps between the early blueberry gathering and Hope's wild blueberry growing in 2000. Blueberries have become Hope's biggest crop. Not counting home consumption, About 20 Hope families and another dozen or so non-resident landowners produce about 900 tons of wild blueberries a year for sale. These have an ex-farm value of about $700,000-900,000. There are major variations in yield and in price. They sell to the Knox County Growers, a co-operative with its collection station in Hope and a Hope President, Richard Brodis (1935- -), and to three of the big Down East packers. These blueberries are still wild in the sense that they are the descendants of the blueberries the Indians picked and have propagated themselves. None of them have been planted. Nevertheless, blueberrying today is very different from Indian or early-settler days.
Commercial blueberrying, like Balsam fir Christmas tree farming, started on run-out pastures, usually stony ones high on well-drained slopes. Blueberry tolerates soil acidity better than most plants. Virtually all of Hope's soils are acid, but the most acid are typically the higher land, especially pastures that never were de-stoned for cultivation and from which much of the meager fertility had leached or eroded to bottom lands. The clearing of Hope's forests -- not only for construction and firewood for Hope but also to fire the kilns in Rockland and Rockport that reduced the limerock -- meant that there was plenty of pasture.
Olive Noyes (1884-1977) remembered picking blueberries on top of Hatchet Mountain. On a beautiful summer day, we would pack our picnic baskets and climb Hatchet Mountain. There were plenty of blueberries for dessert. You could see the ocean. There were no trees in any direction, except the trees around houses and along property lines. In the winter, we would ice skate on the pond on top of the mountain. Allie Dunton said it was the crater of a volcano.
Nobody remembers when blueberries started to be harvested commercially. Fresh blueberries only last a couple of days. The commercial possibilities must have been few until the 2nd half of the 19th Century, by which time roads from Hope to Rockland and Camden were not too bad. In his diary for August 15,1857, 17-year-old Wesbra Bartlett (1839-1911) reports, "Abner Lee Bills and I went up on the mountain <Hatchet> blueberrying. Got 3 qts apiece - they are scarce this year." Not evidence of commercial blueberrying.
In the latter part of the 19th Century, Hope families were packing berries in wooden quart containers, which were then packed in wooden boxes that held 250 to 500 quarts each. These were hauled to Camden or Rockland. Dottie Kimball (1922--) remembers hearing of her grandparents hauling large boxes of blueberries from Kimball (Moody) Mountain to Camden by horse-drawn wagon for shipment by the steamship to Boston. There they were bought by commission merchants like Adams & Chapman, whose headquarters were in Boston. Blueberries went to Portland too, as well as to stores in Camden and Rockland. From 1935, she remembers, the Kimballs delivered to Camden in their 1935 Ford truck, particularly to Carleton French's, the preferred grocery store for yachters and summer people. The Camden Herald would carry Carleton French ads announcing "Mrs. Kimball's blueberries are now available."
The True Cannery
With the new century, a new outlet appeared for Hope's blueberries. In 1882 , LaForest P. True (1849-1941), who had family connections with a canning family from west of Augusta, probably Mt. Vernon, opened a cannery at Hope Corner. He first canned squash, pumpkins and corn under the "Our Standard" label, and later more products under a variety of labels, most notably Knox Pioneer. It was the early days of the canning industry. Initially, can tops were soldered on.
In 1900, "Foss" True started canning blueberries. He was not the first; Mainers had canned blueberries for the troops during the Great Rebellion of 1861-5. But "Foss" was certainly one of the earlier blueberry canners. Bill Hardy (1918--) remembers hearing of people berrying on Hatchet Mountain and carrying the berries in to the True cannery at the Corner in wooden baskets and bags. Canned blueberries were mainly used for pie filler, permitting people to bake (and eat) blueberry pies all year long, not just in August. Nationwide, wild blueberries, principally from Maine, have made up one-tenth of the pie-filler market. Pie cherries, principally from Michigan, make up most of the rest. Until the 1960s or 1970s, the pie cherry price set the blueberry price.
This new market stimulated harvest of the natural resource, as well as its enhancement. But, like all monopsonists (single buyers), "Foss" True was not loved by those who had to sell to him. The harvesters were not usually paid on delivery. Unwillingly, no doubt, they "financed" the cannery by accepting payment after the canned blueberries were sold, and then generally in goods. Whatever the facts, the blueberry collectors suspected cheating on the weights of goods they delivered and received. They complained of having to pay for "Foss's thumb." The monopsonistic relationship and the feelings were similar to those of blueberry sellers today who have to sell to the big processors. Today too, Hope's blueberry farmers deliver their goods without knowing when or how much they will be paid! At least, though, they are paid in cash.
By the early 20th Century, there were plenty of competitors for Hope's True cannery. There were about two dozen "corn shops" in Maine, canning corn, squash, pumpkins, and blueberries. A significant factor for Hope blueberry farmers was the Black & Gay cannery in Thomaston, which had buying stations in Liberty and Freedom. Monmouth cannery, based in Brunswick, bought the old train station in Union and started canning blueberries there. Another early canner, but one that affected Hope little, was Baxter of Brunswick, which mainly bought and canned blueberries from the Gray plains, but which later folded and quit.
For all the farmers' complaints, the new markets at the True and other canneries, and better commercial links to urban markets DownWest, stimulated blueberry harvesting and production. As other farming declined and the least-fertile pastures were let go, farmers increased their efforts to favor blueberries over competing vegetation. Hope's early settlers learned from the Indians that blueberries tolerate burning better than most plants. They sprout vigorously from the crown and the roots that remain after burning and, one year later, fruit heavily on the previous year's growth. The Indians had concentrated native blueberries by burning. Of course, concentrating blueberries was really a by-product of their burning; the principal purpose was to favor and concentrate game.
By the early 1930s, Bill Hardy remembers burning fields to favor the blueberries and to control or kill the competing vegetation. Nate Barrett (1865-1936) had a horse-drawn device he had designed to spread the fire by towing a burning brush pile. Nate paid 2 cents/lb. for berries and got 4 cents at the factory. In those years, there were no Indian tanks. Fires had to be controlled very carefully, beating out the flames that escaped into the surrounding woods or fields with spruce limbs and buckets of water. Indian tank back-pack water sprayers were available from about 1950 but were little used in Hope until the Hope Volunteer Fire Department was organized in 1957. Use of Indian and Hudson pumps made burning much safer.
The natural burn with hay or straw is still practiced today. It gives the best results, though it uses a lot of manpower, which has become ever more expensive. The only innovation since Indian days is preparing for the burn with straw or marsh hay. Ideally, a thin layer is spread on a blueberry field in the fall. Bill Jones (1937- -) remembers harvesting marsh hay for blueberries by scythe on Mullin Bog in 1958, raking it by hand, and pitching it into a pick-up with a pitch fork. Why straw or marsh hay? Because you don't want more grass in a blueberry field. Straw has had its seed head removed. Marsh hay will not germinate or grow on dry hillsides. Ideally, in spring, when snow has melted and the hay/straw is dry but the ground is still frozen, the field is fired. The resulting fire is not hot enough to burn the humus layer of the still-frozen soil -- the humus layer through which wild blueberries spread by rhizome.
Collecting marsh hay is now too costly. Since there is no grain production nearby, there is no straw. We have to settle for regular hay and suffer the consequences of the grass and weeds that are thereby introduced. If there are no good burning days right after frost, as was the case in 2000, burning can be done as late as mid-April on days that are dry and not too windy. The crew with Indian tanks controls the fire and keeps it from spreading beyond the blueberry field. The field will bear a crop late in the following year.
Over decades, as farmers concentrated wild blueberries in acid, generally stony fields where they had volunteered, increasingly, they cut brush that would otherwise over-top the blueberries. If the field was not too rocky, they mowed to help control grasses, sedges, and other annuals before these went to seed. Since blueberries will not fruit unless they have full sun, they started to cut trees and brush back from the edges of berry fields. Thus, painstakingly and slowly, were blueberry fields made.
As labor costs have increased faster than blueberry prices, the traditional burn has been increasingly replaced with the labor-saving machine burn. Fuel-oil-burning flame-throwers, mounted on tractors, started to be used in Hope in the mid- to late-1960s. No hay is spread. Burning takes place, preferably, in fall, after harvest in the bearing year, or in the spring of the new-burn year. The flame thrower is supported by a fuel truck and a water truck to spray the edges and prevent the fire's escape. This method is faster and uses a crew of two. Despite the fuel and equipment cost, it is cheaper than the traditional burn. However, the fire is hotter and more likely to consume the organic duff which blueberries need to spread, and which is turning into future top soil as it deteriorates.
The Blueberry Association
The co-operative Blueberry Association was started in the1930s. Its receiving station was in West Rockport. The initial manager was Henry Contio, a local Finn who knew the blueberry business. He managed the co-op for about a decade -- by all accounts, very well. As is so often the case with co-ops however, the members were unwilling to pay enough to retain a good manager. Contio left after the members refused to raise his annual salary from $1500 to $2000. The co-op's next manager, Ray Atherton, a co-op expert and former professor from the Orono, was paid more than $2000.
This replacement was controversial and weakened the Blueberry Association. Many of the Finns left. And Finns played an important part in local blueberries. In the 1930s depression, many local farms were simply abandoned as their owners left for WPA jobs. Farms could hardly be given away. Many Finns took up hill farms. Bill Hardy remembers that there were Finns on every hill in Rockport and Union, and on Dodge Mountain. The Michaelsons and the Laukkonens came to Hope. These hard-working newcomers were major actors in wild blueberry production. Of course, not all Finns left the co-op, and some non-Finns did. In Hope, Irving Wright (1881-ca. 1960), Frank Messer Payson (1887-1966), the Norwoods and others stayed with the Blueberry Association. Besides Anton Michelson (1887-ca. 1975) and Jaakko Laukkonen (1883-ca. 1975), Frank Grassow (1904-ca. 1975) went over to Black & Gay, the Thomaston canner where Frank worked.
Despite the schism, the Association carried
on. Under Atherton, it built its own freezer on Park Street in West Rockport
in the 1940s. When Atherton retired, he was replaced by Phil Davis and then
by Dave Brown (1913-1981) of Hope, former manager of the Camden Farmers'
Union, who lived in what is now the Hope Historical Home. Brown was a Bowdoin
graduate and a former summer person from Massachusetts who married Katherine
True (1916- -) of the True cannery family. He was manager of the Blueberry
Association at the time of the freezer fire and at the time of its death.
According to Atherton's detractors, the downfall of the co-op began because
he was a co-op theoretician without a practical understanding of business
and of blueberries; the co-op was in weak condition when Dave Brown took
over. Others attribute its demise to the fire. More research would be useful
on the history of the Blueberry Association. A USDA press release, held
by the Hope Historical Society, highlights the co-op's establishment over
a decade after it is known to have been functionning in West Rockport; it
distinctly under-reports the role of our Finnish-American neighbors in the
movement. More interviewing of the living participants in these events and
comparison of their competing versions of history would improve our understanding
of this crucial chapter in local blueberry history.
In the 1940s, blueberries were definitely a commercial crop. Wild stands were being concentrated by burning, by cutting bushes with bow saws (chain saws existed, but were to cumbersome for this kind of field work), and by mowing with sickle-bars where the rocks permitted. Harvest was by hand raking. Metal rakes had replaced wooden ones, like the 13-tooth one that Hope Historical Society genealogist Anna Hardy has preserved. The early metal ones had fewer teeth than today's rakes -- usually 32 to 36 teeth. They were made by Finnish-American Emil Rivers in Rockland or by Tabbut in Columbia Falls. While Abijah W. Tabbut may or may not have invented the metal blueberry rake in 1883, the Tabbut Rake Shop was certainly not the only metal rake producer. Locally, Rivers and his descendants no longer produce rakes, but Don Burke, on Appleton Ridge, produces rugged (but heavy) aluminum ones. Metal rake bodies were tin until World War II, when the bodies were converted to painted steel. Except for the Burke rakes, tines are soldered to the body.
There were no 60- or 70-tine, two-handled rakes, until recently. That's because the best wild blueberry fields then were a mixture of blueberries and many other low plants, through which rakers had to fight, and the residue of which they had to clean out of their rakes. Berries were in patches that were far from pure stands, often hidden in fields of grass. Some of Hope's poorer fields are still like this today. Under these conditions, considered weedy today, a strong raker would be lucky to rake 20 lbs. of berries per hour and a patchy acre might yield less than 1000 lbs. of berries.
Government Inspections, Pesticide Use and IPM
In 1928, the State instituted inspections at weighing stations for the most serious blueberry pest, the blueberry fruit fly (Phatoletis mendax). These trypetid flies lay their eggs in blueberries; the eggs hatch to produce larvae, which consumers see as tiny, white worms that come out and crawl on top of a pint of wild blueberries when the sun is warm. These harmless creatures actually increase the protein content of blueberries, but consumers didn't and still don't appreciate them.
All berries brought for sale were sampled for "maggots." A half-pint, taken at random, was mashed and heated in a saucepan to see whether any larvae appeared. If a farmer's berries contained 1-to-3 maggots per pint, they could not be sold out-of-state; if 4 or more, they would be dumped. That was a powerful incentive to farmers to control the pest.
In the 1930's, '40's and '50s, farmers fought blueberry fruitfly by spreading pesticidal powders on fields. Generally, hand blowers were used, but Ron Russell (1928- -) remembers Guilford Payson (1919-98) applying blueberry pesticide with his power apple sprayer towed behind his tractor. Powders had to be applied in windless conditions. Payson preferred the evening calm to let the powder settle overnight; most growers applied on full-moon, calm nights.
The first product used was calcium arsenate. It was replaced by 50-10-40, which added lime and lead to the arsenate. Though they would pass today's test as "organic", they were highly toxic to farmers, who could hardly avoid breathing in the powder.
In 1972, Hope's blueberry farmers welcomed the advent of guthion to control blueberry fruitfly. This orthophosphate is applied as a spray. Blueberry farmers in Hope and neighboring towns banded together to contract to have guthion applied by plane, first using fixed-wing planes, then helicopters. Guthion is not less dangerous to humans than its arsenic-based predecessors. However, its toxic effect is less long-lasting. More important, it does not have to be applied by hand and is, hence, not dangerous to the applier when handled correctly. It is important to make sure that no humans are on the ground sprayed and that they stay off that ground during the toxic period. It is also important not to spray when wind drift can carry the guthion to places where it will endanger people. Still, Hope's blueberry farmers were delighted, not only to have a less dangerous way of controlling blueberry fruitfly, but also not to have to spray on full-moon nights. Bill Hardy remembers the frustration of getting up and out to spray in the middle of the night only to have a wind come up.
With Hope's rapid population growth since 1970, our blueberry farmers have more and more near neighbors, some of whom worry about the drift of pesticides applied aerially. While such worries are partly irrational, they are partly rational too. Progressively greater efforts have been made to reduce drift, but it cannot be eliminated. Blueberry farmers have increasingly tried to explain to their neighbors what are the real dangers from guthion and what the unreal. Fields are posted after spraying during the period when there is danger from guthion.
A major controversy erupted in the 1990s. The Bruce Brown family bought the S. Manly place, more recently known as the Irene Pushaw place, on Crabtree Road. The property is adjacent to Crabtree family blueberry land. Mrs. Brown and at least one of the Brown daughters have and have long had serious multiple allergy problems, to the point that a daughter is unable to attend school. The Browns blame these problems on use of blueberry pesticides by Everett Crabtree (1926- -) and brought suit to force the Crabtrees to stop using pesticides within a half mile of their house, which ban would have effectively put the Crabtrees out of the blueberry business. Many attempts to mediate failed. Many legal fees later, the Pesticide Control Board took up the case.
Mid-winter 2000 public hearings in the basement
of Union firehouse had to be conducted with doors open because chemicals
in the room might otherwise have affected the multiple-allergy sufferers,
gathered from all over the state to testify. The large local turnout heavily
and vocally supported the Crabtrees. It is widely believed that no connection
had been demonstrated between the Crabtrees' guthion and velpar use and
the Browns' allergies, which are, indeed, multiple. Nevertheless, the Board
imposed restrictions on the Crabtrees' application of pesticides. Even the
local representative, a Hope selectman, voted in the 3-2 majority for sanctions
against the Crabtrees. A benefit for the Browns was held, but not in Hope.
Flyers announcing it were either not posted in Hope or did not remain posted
in Hope. In the summer of 2000, the Browns moved from Hope. In 2001, in
an effort to head off future incidents of this type, a bill was introduced
in State Legislature mandating that purchasers of real estate be informed
if they were purchasing adjacent to a farm.
A few growers have stopped trying to control the blueberry fruitfly on all or part of their fields and sell their berries as "organic." The organic market, however, is extremely small. Tom and Nancy Ford (1945- -)(1947- -) produce partially for this market and pick over their berries to sell them fresh.
At least since the 1980s, almost all growers have sought ways to limit guthion use to when it is actually needed through integrated pest management (IPM). They monitor the level of blueberry fruitfly infestation by setting out small, yellow, sticky, baited fly traps in the bearing year. These traps are set on field edges, especially those adjacent to new-burn fields, since the fruitflies migrate from the non-bearing to the bearing fields. If the fruitfly count is below the critical threshold, word goes out to the pilot not to spray the field in question. This is a welcome saving for the farmer.
Another IPM technique is insect-pest scouting with sweep nets. The insects caught are checked and listed. Blueberry manuals, distributed by the Co-operative Extension Service to blueberry growers, contain photos of insect pests. Growers compare the insects they catch on traps or in sweep nets with the ones in the book. Most growers can identify major pests like the blueberry fruitfly, but not less common ones, such as blueberry thrips (Frankliniella vacinii), which causes twisting and curling of leaves and loss of fruit. If the insects detected are below a stipulated threshold, the farmer can save by not spraying guthion.
Blueberry fruitflies thrive in the berries left in fields, particularly in the "trash" from winnowers that is left in the fields. Most growers no longer winnow berries in the field (see below); those who winnow make an effort to disperse the trash or even to burn it. The sum of these IPM measures is a considerable reduction in blueberry fruitfly infestation and, hence, in the need to spray.
Recent Intensification: Velpar and Fertilizer
The velpar revolution started in1982. By serendipity, this herbicide, which was developed but never used for Christmas tree cultivation, turned out to kill or control most of the weeds -- the non-woody plants in blueberry fields other than blueberries. By judiciously applying velpar, wild blueberries could be further encouraged and, gradually, be developed into almost pure stands.
Combined with earlier cultural practices, velpar led to much more uniform blueberry fields, to much higher numbers of plants per acre, and hence to much higher yields per acre. Since rakers didn't have to fight grasses, sedges, wild blackberry, strawberry, goldenrod, cow vetch, fireweed, roses and other weeds nearly as much, yield per raker hour increased dramatically too. Rakes with up to 70 teeth started to appear because it is easier to push a rake through pure blueberries that have been properly burned and mowed.
Since most Hope blueberry fields are slopey, where velpar was used on patchy fields, bare spots were created in the non-blueberry patches, leading to sheet and rill erosion. With cost sharing from US Department of Agriculture, farmers can spread wood chips, shingle hair and/or sawdust to mulch the rills and bare patches. This practice is being tried by Bill (1937- -) & Judith Jones (1942- -) on the Jones Taylor Place field, one of the worst blueberry fields in Hope and, consequently, one of the worst affected. Wood chips and sawdust are on the field by truck and spread by hand. If successful, this practice will not only arrest erosion but will speed the expansion of blueberry clones into the bare patches.
The velpar revolution permitted the fertilizer revolution. Blueberries established themselves in the least fertile soils. They tolerate this infertility better than most of their plant competitors but, like any plant, they do not enjoy being starved for basic nutrients. Pre-velpar, giving blueberries more fixed nitrogen (N2) and phosphates (P2O5) would reduce yields. Added fertilizer stimulated the grasses and sedges, which thrived and shaded the lower blueberries, depriving them of sun as well. With velpar and purer stands of blueberries, it became economic to add phosphates and nitrogen to blueberry fields. Hope's blueberry farmers are still experimenting to find the optimal doses (and so is the Extension Service).
With better control of competing vegetation and better plant nutrition, on Hope's better fields, blueberry yields have risen to levels inconceivable only a few years ago. Production is often 8,000 lbs./acre and a good raker may harvest 200 lbs./hour, using rakes with 60 or more teeth. This year, crews raking in Hope and delivering to Cary Nash's receiving station in North Appleton averaged 50-60 boxes per raker per day. This amounts to 1135 to 1365 lbs./raker/day. At that rate, the average adult raker makes $125-150; an excellent raker, $200 per day.
Harvest is still almost entirely by stoop, hand labor using rakes on Hope's blueberry fields.
Downeast, in Hancock and Washington Counties, a substantial portion of the blueberry harvest is now by machine. A variety of harvest machines have been tried in Hope but, with few exceptions (e.g. Ruth Payson's (1922- -) and John & Tet Dow's (1962- -)(1967- -) Grassow field) harvesting has returned to hand raking. The Downeast blueberry barrens are generally sandy and flat. Most of Hope's fields are stony, hilly, and hummocky. The machines frequently break metal teeth and spend a lot of time being repaired. Even so, they are surprisingly quick. Jack Maloney, who machine-harvested the best lands in Hope in 2000, averaged 300-400 boxes (6800-9100 lbs.)/day, with a daily high this year of 566 boxes (12,850 lbs.) on the Dow's field. Maloney, a Perry schoolteacher, is accompanied by his grade-school son and a high-school friend. The three-person crew live in a trailer and are independent contractors, receiving 10 or 11 cents/lb. Their gross daily income, therefore, is $680-1000, with a high of about $1350.
Bill Hardy was the first person to try machine raking in the 1960s. He bought cranberry rakes, which were used with minor adaptations. These proved inferior to hand rakers under most conditions. Mammoth machine harvesters with several times the capacity of Maloney's have been tried in Hope. They are still used on flat stoneless blueberry land Downeast, but not in Hope.
Speed comparison with hand-raking is inappropriate because hand-raking can always be speeded by adding to the crew. At the present machine technology, however, in all but the smoothest, least-stony fields, the machines waste more berries -- leave more berries in the field -- than a conscientious crew. This loss of berries, and the down time and cost of repairs in rougher conditions, usually more than compensates for the cost saving of machine harvest.
Is this a victory of man over machine? Probably not. As people's aversion to hard work increases, and as the reservation price of farm labor increases, machines will probably win out one day. Against that day, Hope blueberry farmers are starting, where feasible, to de-stone their fields. In 1997, Paul Payson (1951- -) began de-stoning his field on the Alford Lake Road; in 1999, Bill Hardy, with help from Walter Campbell (1936- -) and his tractor, de-stoned most of the Ike lot.
For now, harvest is predominantly by hand-raking crews. Some are family groups, or family-groups with friends and neighbors, paid by the weight of berries raked. Members of the Knox County Growers arrange their own crews. Most crews, however, are arranged by blueberry agents, local associates of one of the five companies that have established an oligopsony ("few buyers") in the industry. These agents hire whomever they can to rake through local ads. Recently, rakers have been paid around $0.11/lb.
Land owners who have blueberry agents arrange crews to harvest their berries pay $0.17-19/lb. to cover the pay of the rakers plus the cost of the crew boss, of scouting the field and laying out string to mark the rakers' lanes, weighing and record-keeping. By comparison, machine raking costs about $0.10-11/lb. One reason for the high and increasing "overhead" -- the difference between what the raker gets and what raking costs -- is increasing Federal regulations. Crews have to have a jiffy john in the field for every 20 workers; two for 21. Drinking water and a washing station with running water, soap and towels have to be provided by the employer. Nash, the Cherryfield Foods representative, has constructed trailers with barrels of water and, as required, separate faucets. Hot and cold water are not yet required. A US Department of Labor representative makes the rounds of the raking crews, a procedure which the contractors and many of the rakers consider harassment.
Crew bosses try to make rakers rake clean, i.e. rake as many berries from their lanes as they can. That is in the land owner's interest. The rakers' interest, however, is to rake berries as rapidly as possible since he/she is on piece rate. These conflicting interests are resolved through a variety of compromises. In poor quality fields, field bosses (or owners) have little bargaining power. Faced with poor raking -- a low rate of production, hence a low de facto wage -- rakers will "walk" if pressured and, indeed, in poorer fields, will refuse to rake even if not pressured. In better quality fields, field bosses or owners have more bargaining power; the threat to kick rakers off the crew if they don't raker cleaner is more effective if the raker can produce more berries/hour and, hence a higher effective wage.
Rakes harvest most ripe berries that are not too close to the ground. They crush some. They also harvest unripe berries, blueberry leaves and stems, pieces of grass and other plants, other berries, twigs, insects, and small stones. Crew bosses keep checking to prevent rakers from turning in too many stones or too "trashy" berries (i.e. the mix of berries and whatever else the rake collects) for the conditions.
Traditionally, rakers gathered the berries in wooden bushel baskets with handles, recently replaced by plastic buckets, pouring the berries (and other harvest) over the back of their rakes. Periodically, rakers carry their buckets to a scale, usually set up on a tripod of sticks, where the crew boss weighed in their berries and recorded their take. Periodically, the crew boss winnowed the berries.
The most common winnower in Hope is still the Emil Rivers, a machine invented and patented by Emil Rivers of Rockland, in 1926. Instructions for the machines were originally in English and Finnish, the latter incomprehensible to Hope farmers, except for Jaakko Laukkonen and the Michelsons. Before that time, farmers used their bean winnowers for blueberries.
The largely wooden, Emil Rivers machine is powered by a small, internal-combustion engine. The contents of the baskets are poured onto a moving horizontal belt, which drops them through an air current produced by wooden paddles onto another moving belt inclined at 45°. The air current blows whatever is not too dense -- grass and blueberry leaves, for example -- up and out of the winnower. The whole berries, and whatever else will roll, then roll down the ascending belt and into a box at the bottom of a chute. Whatever does not roll -- crushed berries, insects, some stones, twigs, other debris that was not blown away -- is carried up the inclined belt and dumped on the ground. While the pile of debris separated from the berries by the winnower always seems large, it is invariably less than 10% of the weight for which the raker was paid. The winnowed "blueberries" in the box still contain some non blueberries, plus white or pink blueberries that are not ripe and a lot of short (and some not-so-short) stems.
This product is usually delivered to the blueberry receiving station for shipment to one of the State's processing plants. Before it can be eaten with milk and sugar, baked into a blueberry pie, muffins, etc., these winnowed berries have to be picked over by hand. The required degree of purity depends on the intended use. More unripe berries may be left in for pie to give it a slight tart edge.
Starting in the 1960s, newer winnowers started to compete with the Emil Rivers model. The Rivers' winnowers "handle" the berries too much, getting them dirty unless the belts are constantly cleaned. The new "air stack" or "air flume" winnowers are built of stainless steel and have only one belt. These were first built in Rockland by Emil Rivers's son, Simon Hamalainen. Bill Hardy was the first to use them in Hope in 1974 or 75. He converted winnowers formerly used in the Bird factory in Rockland for use in fields by installing internal combustion motors. A column of air cleans the berries. There are a few of these in use in Hope, but Rivers winnowers are more common.
Either way, if berries are to be sold fresh, they have to be picked over further by hand, usually using first a tilt table and then a picking line where impurities and imperfect berries are picked out by hand. At this time, Dick & Gwen Brodis (1936- -), Nate (1936- -) & Charlotte Pease (who live across the town line in East Union but whose fields are in Hope), and Tom & Nancy Ford sell part of their blueberries in the freshpack market. At this time, Brodis' Blueberries is the largest freshpack operation in Hope. Their pick-over line used to run from the end of each harvesting day far into the night; now it has been converted to 9-to-5 hours, partly to accommodate the hours of Gwen Brodis's gift shop, where she sells blueberry jam and jelly, among other things. The rest of Hope's growers sell all or almost all of their berries to the big processors.
Normally, berries destined for processing are hauled to the collection stations: either the Knox Country Growers' station on the Pearse farm, or Cherryfield Foods station in North Appleton, or Coastal or Allen's stations in Union.
Hope's First Receiving Station
The first receiving station in Hope was started by Bill Hardy at Hope Corner in 1958 in the old True cannery which had closed in about 1932.
Before Hardy set up his receiving station, the blueberry-marketing situation was quite different from what it is today. In 1950, Knox County and surrounding areas of small blueberry farms still accounted for half of Maine's blueberry production. We were not the tail to Downeast's dog as we are today. Moreover, today's Downeast giants did not dominate blueberry buying. Canning was more important; freezing less so.
In the mid-coast region, there were a number of buyers. Some were canners, like Black & Gay, Monmouth, which set up a cannery in the old train station in Union, and Burnham & Morrill from South Paris. In the 1940s, freezing blueberries was gaining ground, but the Downeast firms did not dominate the market as they do today. The nearest freezer for the majors was probably Wyman's in Ellsworth. Agents from outside of Maine were beginning to enter blueberry buying. Tony Skoglik from Pennsylvania contracted for a freezer in West Rockport and got business from some Finns discontented with the Blueberry Association and from the Norwoods of Hope. Sammy Landsman of New York City had a Rockland station and rented freezer space from Bernie Lewis's Cumberland Frozen Foods in Portland. Local entrepreneurs like Ned Cutting tried to find a place in the commercial chain between the farmers and the canners.
In about 1960, a Downeast firm tried to invade the midcoast market; Charley Stewart of A.L.Stewart's of Cherryfield set up in West Rockport, but was not successful. Their operation was bought by Davis, a local independent, who gave up.
Bill and Anna Hardy (1918- -) returned from their work at the University in Orono in 1952. Initially, Bill worked for the blueberry operation of E.E. ("Ned") Cutting in West Rockport and Warren. Then Hardy left Cutting and became a competitor, buying Davis's scales and setting up a receiving station in the abandoned True cannery at Hope Corner. Cutting made it difficult for Hardy to sell his berries ("queered things with the Association"). In the tight, oligopsonistic world of Maine blueberry processing, this meant that Hardy could not sell to anyone in Maine. Initially, he had to sell to Shawcross in Chelmsford Massachusetts for four years. Later Hardy worked with Landsman and took an interest in the Cumberland freezer. Finally, he sold his berries to Downeast firms, effectively becoming their local agent.
The Hardy blueberry factory at the Corner operated for 30 years until 1987. Typically, the yearly throughput was 200 tons of berries from Hope and surrounding towns. Of these, about 20 tons came from land owned and managed by the Hardys and a somewhat larger amount from independent local farmers who managed their own land. More than half came from local farms that left the management of the blueberries entirely or partially to Hardy. Not only did Bill Hardy arrange for the raking of most of the berries but his crews did most of the burning, mowing, spraying, and brush control. Bill Hardy used to have every trailer truck that left Hope filled with berries sound its air horn, just as old Abner Dunton (1807-1911), Hope's venerable shoemaker, used to ring a bell at what is now Barbara Barrett Carver's (1924- -) house each time he finished a pair of shoes.
The decline of Hope's first blueberry receiving station had multiple causes. One was the Hardys' increasing attention to their larger blueberry operation in Wells. There, they perceived the potential on sandy soils after a forest fire, assembled the land, and developed a blueberry operation that produced 100 tons annually with a high of 150 tons.
Another cause was the narrow margins involved in the station. On-farm operations were billed to the farm owners. Most of these did not pay cash, however, but had the factory carry their debt, deducting it from the blueberry proceeds when these were harvested and sold. A bad harvest and/or a low price meant that the farmers owed the Hardys and not vice versa.
Moreover, for the independents, who carried
out their own farm operations and delivered their berries to the station,
the station's margin was modest -- typically 2 cents/lb. These growers negotiated
hard for a better price, not just from Hardy but also from the Downeast
In the early 1970s, the Knox County Growers group was formed. Initially, it was part of National Farmers Organization (NFO), a national group far more radical than the local members. Hope farmers Dick Brodis and Nate Pease, as well as neighbors Vileo Hill from Searsmont and Don Burke from Appleton, were early members. The Hardy blueberry factory offered the Knox County Growers one of its two cents/lb. margin, but the Downeast processors were not offering concessions.
The Knox County Blueberry Growers
While they were still affiliated with NFO, the Knox County Growers set up their own receiving station. Without their business, and with more of the Hardys' energies going into their Wells operation, the Hope Corner receiving station was no longer viable. It was used by agents of Downeast processors for three years until 1990 but has not been used since.
The Knox County Growers first receiving station was in Joel Gushee's barn on East Sennebec Road in Appleton. In the NFO-affiliated years, the Growers sold to Medomak Canners, Bernie Lewis and others. The Knox County Growers bought their freedom from NFO at about the same time that their Appleton station, blueberry cleaners, boxes and all, was destroyed by fire. They were already dealing with Downeast's biggest outfit, Jasper Wyman. Without their own station, their most practical alternative was to deliver their berries to Wyman's local agent, Cary Nash, whose blueberry receiving station is in North Appleton. When Nash switched to being Cherryfield Foods's agent, the Knox County Growers stayed linked to Wyman's. They set up their own station in Hope in John (1923- -) and Ruth (1927- -) Pearse's former hen house on the Barnestown Road. On good days, the Blueberry Barn receives and ships in excess of 25 tons of berries.
The Knox County Growers initially met, estimated their probable harvest, then put out a call for bids. They undertook to deliver, at their receiving station, between specified dates, at least a specified quantity of winnowed berries. They have evolved, however, a long-term relationship with Wyman, one of the majors, and no longer seek bids annually for their berries. They are not, however, exactly like the processors' agents in North Appleton and Union; their members perform their own on-farm operations. They have not, however, been able to break free from dependence on the major buyers. The prices paid to the Knox County Growers are not a matter of public record. It is generally believed, however, that they receive a slightly better price than the "field price" established by the majors for other growers, at least in most years. It is widely believed that this bonus is the price the majors will pay to keep the Know County Growers in their commercial system.
Winnowed berries used to be delivered to receiving stations in wooden boxes containing 22-25 lbs. These have been replaced by plastic boxes containing the same weight. Transport to the stations may be by the farmer or by the crew boss. On arrival, berries are weighed and tallied. Samples are taken for the State blueberry fruitfly inspection. Boxes are loaded onto pallets and moved with hand fork-lifts to trailer trucks for transport to processing plants Downeast where they are sorted and frozen. In 1995, Cherryfield Foods started taking the berries unwinnowed, preferring to have the berries handled less by farmers. In 1999, Wyman followed suit. Evidently, these industry giants can do a better job of sorting what comes out of blueberry rakes than farmers can.
A very important aspect of the raising of bluberries is pollination. Growers hire honeybee colonies from beekeepers each spring to pollinate their crops. If bees are not brought in, the commercial raising of blueberries would not be possible. Many years ago in New Jersey the blueberry crop was a failure because of a wet spring. Bee colonies did not have time to collect pollin for raising their young prior to their use in the blueberry fields. When they were placed in the fields they tended to ignore the blueberries and collected the more available pollin in the woods. Click here to see pictures of commercial hives taken on May 18, 2008 at fields in the Morey Hill section of Hope.
A photographic project entitled "Using the Land, Making a Living HOPE in 2000" was done by Jay Leech. The photographs of the Blueberry part of the project can be viewed by clicking here.