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Maine's Blueberries and the People Who Rake Them

Maine Narrative
by Emma Thieme Sep 23, 2014

When I was 13, my mom signed me up for a blueberry raking crew. She wanted my first real job — besides babysitting the neighborhood kids for $3 an hour — to be one of hard work. So she signed me up for the same manual labor she’d signed herself up for back in the early 1970s when she was about my age.

“When you close your eyes at night, all you’ll see is blueberries,” she told me.

She was right. Every morning before sunup in August, she drove me to downtown Winterport, where I’d wait in front of the gas station to be picked up by the crew. Sometimes they’d show up in an old school bus, painted white. Other times a pickup truck would pull up and whoever wanted to rake would climb in the back. I liked riding in the truck the best. Even in August, the morning air in Maine is prickling but with a promise that the sun might warm you by noon. I’d sit alone sometimes with my hood up around my ears, clutching my water bottle and granola bar for later. We’d get to the fields in Frankfort just as the sun was crowning over the hills of Waldo County.

And yes, she was right, all I could see before me were miles and miles of blueberries, whether my eyes were closed or not.

What my mother didn’t tell me about raking was that, as a kid who hadn’t yet been out of New England, the blueberry field would be my first piece of real evidence that other cultures existed. I’d often ride to the field with some local kids, but when I hopped out of the truck, I was a minority in my own home county. The fields were filled with people I’d never seen before, greeting each other in Spanish, sitting on overturned buckets and sipping on Styrofoam cups of coffee.

The Maine blueberry harvest used to be dominated by the Native American population, with most of the workers being either Passamaquoddy or Canadian Mi’kmaq. However, at the start of the 1990s, the labor force became overwhelmingly Hispanic. Today 83% of migrant laborers in America are Mexican, Mexican-American, Puerto Rican, Cuban, or from Central or South America.

I remember entire families — with children way younger than me — congregating in their assigned rows. Mothers swatted at their toddlers squatting down to eat the berries. The smells were completely foreign from the salty pine I was used to. The smoky scent of rocky soil and sweat hung in the air, mixed with the slight tang of pesticides sprayed on miles and miles of bright blueberries nestled in low bushes. For a 13-year-old Maine girl, raised in the same town her mother was raised in, the blueberry field was a mini-introduction to the many possible worlds beyond America.

Harvesting blueberries is not the casual summer activity we saw so beautifully illustrated in Robert McCloskey’s children’s book Blueberries for Sal. It’s hard, manual labor. The fields are vast and barren, offering no shade cover as the sun beats down on your neck and shoulders. The hours are long. You get to the fields at first light and don’t leave until the operation shuts down — either because the field has been completely harvested or the sorting trucks can’t keep up with the amount of berries being raked.

If you make the mistake of popping a berry into your mouth, you won’t be able to stop yourself from taking handfuls. Not only will eating slow you down, it’ll cause you to spend most of your shift in the woods or in the outhouses — usually located on the back of a truck, which drives from field to field. The berries are heavily coated in powerful pesticides that don’t agree with any human digestive system. And the fields are not a good place to get sick.

You’re often working up- or downhill, trying to keep your footing while bending over and pushing or dragging your rake across the top of the bushes. Once you get a rake-full of berries, you winnow out the leaves, rocks, and sticks before dumping the berries into a box. Twenty-three pounds of berries will fill a box. You’ll stack your boxes in your row until you have time to carry them to the truck. When I was raking, you got paid $2.25 for every box you filled. On most Maine fields today, 12 years later, you’ll still get exactly that.

Even though I still sometimes saw them in my dreams, I didn’t step on a blueberry field again until I moved 60 miles east to Washington County earlier this year.

Washington County is three things to most Mainers. It’s the poorest county in our state, considered by many an exquisite place to pass through but too impoverished to live or raise a family. It’s the easternmost part of the United States, the first place to see the sunrise each morning. And it’s the blueberry capital of the world. My home fields in Waldo can’t compare to the powerhouse operation that goes on up here. The fields are no longer “the fields”; they’re “the barrens.” Named because they’re exactly that, barren. Millions of acres of wild blueberry bushes are intersected by hundreds of miles of dusty gravel roads. It’s easy to get lost here if you don’t know the landmarks — a rock that looks like a frog, a small monument, an abandoned cabin for sale. Without local knowledge, every direction looks exactly the same.

The barrens are so endless, landowners used to use planes and helicopters to spray pesticides aerially. Any Mainer who’s been here long enough can remember going inside their house to avoid the spray when they heard a low-flying engine rumble in the distance. In the 1970s, the pesticide mixture was believed to contain an identical nerve agent to one used in the Vietnam War.

The barrens span three towns — Milbridge, Cherryfield, and Deblois. The majority of the harvest used to be done by hand. Thousands of migrant workers would flood those three towns, bringing their families to work in the fields with them, just like I saw back home. Today, the majority of harvest labor is done by machine, so securing a spot on a raking crew is far more competitive; the number of laborers actually raking blueberries has dropped down to the hundreds. But the migrant population still has a strong presence in these small communities. Raking was a rite of passage for many local Maine families in the 1970s, but it isn’t so much anymore. So the harvest is still heavily dependent on these traveling laborers, coming from all over the continent to work it.

There’s no way around it — Maine is one of the least diverse states in the country. Ninety-six percent of its population is white. So it’s not difficult to notice the influx of hundreds and hundreds of Spanish-speakers arriving here for the harvest each year.

Enrique is a 20-year-old from Georgia in a bright purple sweatshirt, a baseball hat, and a tattoo on his knuckles that reads “Sick Life” — he’s not a typical character you’d meet in rural Maine, and he knows it. He laughs and tells me that if we were in his hometown in Georgia, he’d never be “caught talking to a white girl.” But at the labor camp in Deblois he invites me to sit down with him and his friend Luis. They’re happily eating breakfast at a picnic table in the camp’s communal area — some large tents strung up over two Mexican food trucks.

Enrique came to the barrens with his father, who’s originally from Guanajuato, Mexico. Although this is Enrique’s first time in Maine, he’s heard about it from his dad, who’s come here for countless seasons, making his livelihood as a field worker traveling around the States.

“I love it here,” Enrique says. “It’s more natural, you know? Not like the city.”

When I ask Enrique if the raking is hard work, he says, “No, it’s mental. You have to keep thinking ‘I’m a machine. I’m a machine.’ If you don’t, your mind gets depressed and you don’t make that money.”

He says that sometimes his father sees him wearing down and taking a break. “My dad will come over and tell me to ‘Beat that demon! Beat that demon!’” Enrique and Luis laugh and briefly compare stories in Spanish. They’re each making their way through three breakfast sandwiches.

Enrique and his father came to Maine from New Jersey, where the blueberries grow on trees. “You have a basket on your waist and you just pick, pick, pick.” He says you don’t make as much money in the high-bush harvest because you have to fill a larger basket and you’re using your fingers to pick, instead of a rake. When August is over, they’ll head to Pennsylvania to pick apples. When that harvest is done, they’ll come back to Maine to make wreaths for the winter.

Enrique says that although “it’s good money” — his best day this season was 150 boxes, not typical but about $340 dollars — he doesn’t want to work in the fields forever. “I’m looking for a school where I can learn sound engineering,” he said. “Then I can come back to places like these and offer them opportunities. You meet all different types of people here. I would like to hear and share their stories.”

Because of the conversion to mechanical harvesting, many migrants have gone instead to work in the local sea cucumber processing plant, where the meat of the unique, slick sea creature — usually just called pepinos because there isn’t even a name for them in Spanish — is scooped away from its skin for $1.75 per pound. It’s then shipped off to China to be used in specialty cuisine. And like Enrique and his father, many migrants will come back and stay in Maine through the winter to make wreaths, weaving sprigs of pine onto wire to be shipped all over the world in time for Christmas.

Because of these seasonal work resources for the traveling families, the multiculturalism in this sparsely populated Maine county is extremely prominent. Many families have become year-round residents of Maine and have lived here since the ’90s, opening their own businesses — an auto body shop, a painting business, and a locally infamous Mexican restaurant called Vazquez.

“[Migrant families] come from close-knit communities. They look for that in the States,” says Ian Yaffe, executive director of Mano en Mano, a nonprofit organization devoted to advocating for these diverse populations. “They have traveled thousands of miles in some cases to be here…they come here for community, they come here for schools, quietness, to be part of a close community.”

Rural Maine culture is in many ways similar to home for these families. People live closely here. Families, like my own, often date back multiple generations in the same town. Community gatherings such as potluck suppers, school fundraisers, and concerts are always heavily attended. People stop and talk in the grocery store, and every passing car waves to you when you drive down the road.

There’s even a soccer tournament out at the labor camp every year at the end of the season. The first match is always Mexicans vs. Americans. Whoever wins goes on to be defeated by the Hondurans. Many community members — who’d never come up to the barrens otherwise — attend the event, setting up lawn chairs in the back of pickup trucks, drinking cans of koozie-concealed Bud Lite, and swarming the food trucks at halftime for authentic Mexican empanadas.

The local grocery stores have made a point to always have a Spanish-speaker on staff, and when Mano en Mano offered free language classes this past winter in both English and Spanish, more people came to learn Spanish.

Many of the migrant families who’ve chosen to settle here are from the same areas of origin. There are 300 to 400 people with roots in Michoacán, Mexico, now living in Milbridge, Maine, a town with a population of just 1,353. Silvia Paine is one of these community members. She came by herself to Milbridge in 2005 from Morelia. Silvia usually works at the sea cucumber plant and makes wreaths in the winter. Her two children came later to work at the blueberry factory.

Silvia’s first impression of Maine was that it was a “beautiful place.” But integrating into the community was difficult. “I didn’t know English. It was hard to communicate. I had to call friends sometimes to help me,” Silvia remembers. “But in time I have been learning a little more.”

Silvia took advantage of Mano en Mano’s advocacy programs to help gain confidence in the community. Mano en Mano helped her find a health provider and offered to help her with translation. Nearly 10 years later, Silvia says that Maine has become a new home for her. “Yes, I feel part of them now. I love this place. I love the people. Everyone is polite and kind.”

Ian says that even with the well-known Maine mentality of resisting outsiders and change, Washington County has been very accepting of its newfound diversity. The local grocery stores have made a point to always have a Spanish-speaker on staff, and when Mano en Mano offered free language classes this past winter in both English and Spanish, more people came to learn Spanish. There are exceptions, of course — “individual attitudes who are not accepting of newcomers in general.” But the fact that these are the exceptions and not the norm is significant.

Jenn Brown, Mano en Mano’s director of student and family services, believes the migrant community adds “excitement, vibrance, and complexity” to the Washington County area. She notes that if people aren’t accepting, it’s most likely because they’ve never interacted with these families.

“Many people here have never even been to the barrens,” she says. “Sometimes that’s just the way we do our lives. We don’t always pay attention.”

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