Here, all the way Down East, the month of August means two things: pain and money.
The numbers for this year’s blueberry harvest aren’t in yet, but a rainy July made the berries big and juicy. The gossips say it’s gonna be a good year. In 2007, Maine produced 77 million pounds of blueberries. Around 83 million bucks’ worth. And most are raked in Washington County, where I live.
This is the center of the blueberry universe: over 34,000 acres of “barrens” devoted to cultivating the (allegedly) wild, low-bush fruit. The sandy and nutrient-poor soil is the perfect mix for farming blueberries, but to call the major blueberry growing operations “farms” is a lie. The barrens are outdoor factories where the widget is a tiny, sweet, blue ball frozen for use in muffins and other mass-produced treats.
The pain from raking blueberries is a deep, dull throb, mixed with soreness and a constant stabbing, in your lower back, on your left and right sides, shooting horizontally, vertically and diagonally. It’s the awful ache felt by a billion workers since the birth of agricultural hard labor. The sting of the bent spine. The stoop. The twist. The reach and pull. A pain a million times worse than any sorrow from desk or factory. The strain of the harvest, once acquired, doesn’t leave. When the work day ends, the torture continues. All through supper and all evening, whether you use heat or ice or sit or stand or soak or stretch. You sleep and when you wake, it’s still there. It needs to be numbed, somehow. Opium. Booze. Pills. Reefer. Television. Meanness. Anger. Whatever works.
I didn’t rake this year. The harvest of 2004, known as “the worst year evah,” proved I’m too tall and unlimber for blueberries. The field where I raked was a small family operation, and one of the last farms that hired only locals. Three weeks among the berries, bent over, rake in hand, alongside pill heads, degenerates, schoolteachers and a Passamaquoddy warrior who told me his nickname was “Hamburger Helper,” made for an unforgettable summer adventure. The money sucked.
The majority of the rakers Down East today are migrants from Central and South America and the Caribbean. There are a couple reasons for this: they’re better workers and cheaper than locals. Soon they will be replaced by mechanical harvesters, obedient robots that won’t complain when cheated. And that’s the truth. This year, rakers are getting paid 14 to 16 cents a pound (the same I earned) by the growers. The processor, according to estimates, will pay the grower $1.07 per pound. How much do the processors get for their frozen berries? That seems to be a trade secret.
The blueberry industry is a secretive one. In 2003, the four major blueberry processors were sued by a group of growers and found to be violating Maine’s anti-trust laws. The processors made backroom deals, fixing the field price, keeping it artificially low, and making it tough on anyone who squawked or tried to sell their berries elsewhere. The major processors had (and still have) the growers by the blue balls. Fresh-raked fruit needs to be frozen quick, so the growers have to sell ’em quick. Since a 2004 settlement, the yearly price paid to growers has gone up (a little more than double), but the increase hasn’t trickled down to the rakers, and probably never will.
Capitalists would defend screwing the worker, because the price of doing business has risen. These food factories are addicted to petroleum: pesticides and weed killers, gasoline for the trucks and energy to run the processing machines and freezers, not to mention shipping the blueberries to all corners of the globe. And don’t forget the giant flamethrowers used to burn half the fields every year.
But rising energy costs aren’t the industry’s sole concern. The larger, but rarely mentioned threat is the very scary and mysterious bee die-off. Worker bees across the globe, responsible for pollination, are disappearing. Scientists don’t know what’s happening, but it’s driving up the cost of rental hives.
This should remind us that we all starve if the bees disappear.
With the coming collapse of petro-society, I predict agri-squatters will take over manageable sections of the blueberry factory fields and farm the old way. Smaller fields mean fewer invasive weeds and bugs, eliminating the need to indiscriminately spray poison on the plants. Because local food will be the only food, families and neighbors will tend the berries and harvest. There’ll be communal canning parties and pie bake-offs. And then, come autumn, another party. Scatter dry hay, drink blueberry wine, and set the fields ablaze.