Friday, August 17, 2012

Wild Maine Blueberries: The King of Fruits


The journey continues and after a short stint back home, in Manhattan, I've set sail for coastal Maine, home of wild blueberries and about 80% of America's blueberry production.  While on my way to work at Four Season Farm, home of farmer/writer/lecturer Eliot Coleman and his wife Barbara Damrosch, a twist of fate led me to another farm which happened to be literally next door from Four Season called Blue Sky Farm, a wild blueberry farm run by two incredible people, Costas Christ and his wife Sally.  There I spent two weeks learning and working, picking and processing blueberries.  Maine, an incredible state, which also happens to be home of my first farm travelling experience working with the Seaweed man in 2010.  I had no idea that Maine, or "vacationland" as it is appropriately nicknamed, could offer such breathtaking beauty.  I choose the term breathtaking in-particular because of the way the views and lifestyle force you to stop and stare even of only for one long deep breath. The way I've been describing it is a glimpse into what America once was, treelined, nature full of life everywhere you look, sit, touch, smell, hear and fertility. Endless unobstructed skylines.  I can't tell you the last time I saw a building over two stories.  I'm 30 minutes from the nearest store and it's not really an issue.  Looking up has a completely different meaning out here, instead of admiring the beautiful architectural designs that paint Manhattan's every corner, here it's trees, wildlife, plants of all varieties and gorgeous skies.  I've embarked on another incredibly valuable and awe-inspiring trip through the...

WWOOF program.  In exchange for about 6 hours of work per day, I got an extensive education in wild blueberry production, home gardening and 2 incredibly thoughtful, delicious and local meals and an extremely comfortable and enjoyable campsite.

Onto the blueberries, there are two varieties grown either low or high bush. What I've learned is that this particular region of Maine is best known for its native, low bush, wild blueberry which is the only type that Blue Sky Farm picks.

Unlike most vegetable agricultural, fruit production, wild fruit in particular, takes you into the world of perennial plants, natures mono-crop.  Unlike the excessive corn, wheat and soybean production that our country has now infamously become recognized for along with our extreme land abuse, native perennials have naturally developed a relationship with the earth in order to maintain themselves for decades and some even centuries.  Although perennials don't need to be replanted each year, they may only flower and fruit during a small window, for blueberries this is August.

Blue Sky Farm, an organic wild blueberry farm is a magical place, overlooking the Penobscot Bay.  Up the hill from the ocean and surrounded by pine forests, Blue Sky offers a look into Maine's most beloved crop, naturally growing, wild blueberries.

Often referred to as a "superfood," low bush blueberries are known for their high anti-oxidant and nutrient content, which I learned is found in the skin, so it is important that they are handled as little as possible. Wild blueberries are smaller than their cousin, high bush, which contains larger berries but less anti-oxidant and nutrient content.

Using a specially crafted rake, similiar to a chamomile harvester, we scoop the clusters into the rake avoiding tall grasses, unripe berries, "imposter" berries (those that look like blueberries but are not), squished berries, shriveled berries and anything else that's not a blueberry. Before a blueberry is a blueberry it goes from a green leafy plant to a flower and from the flower finally the fruit. The filled trays are taken back to be "winnowed."

Unlike the commercial producers who use $50,000 winnowing machines that still require 4 people to run final checks, we used 5 people and a simple house fan to blow off any remaining leaves as we poured out our trays onto a table covered with some sheets and towels for extra cushioning. Here they are de-stemmed and sorted through to remove any split, shriveled, mushy, or unripe berries.  Using our eyes and touch we began to separate out the best looking berries for market.  Now obviously we couldn't pick or process as much as the big commercial farms, but the quality is far superior than those sprayed with dangerous chemical herbicides.

The berries we picked and processed were sold at the Buck's Harbor Farmers' market on Tuesday's from August to September, to the local co-op, supermarket in town and directly from the Blue Sky Farm front door.

To add to the creativity and variety, blueberry muffins, crepes, fresh berries and special orders are available throughout the season.

Instead of spraying chemicals, Blue Sky chooses an organic approach which involves a "controlled burn" of alternating fields each year.  There are two sections, one 15 acres and the other 7 acres that get rotated into and out of production each year.  For example, around October the field we picked this year will get straw laid down throughout, then in April, that section will be burned and will only produce vegetative (non-fruiting) growth that year.  The following year that acreage will be in full bloom while the other is burned and this goes on alternating each year. 

Interestingly enough, when you burn the plants you increase the alkalinity of the soil and blueberries enjoy a very acidic soil in the 4 - 5 ph range, so it's no surprise they are found next to an acidic soil-loving  pine forrest (pine needles are great to add to increase acidity in soil especially for home production).  In order to bring the acidity back into action, a small amount of elemental sulfur (an organic certified method) is added into the soil which helps lower the ph.

WWOOFing has proven to be an experiential way to learn about farming, people, food and culture. An opportunity to get a first hand feel for what people are doing around the world.  I was once again thoroughly impressed with my accommodations and food offerings as I have been lucky with all of my WWOOF travels. Blue Sky Farm seems to be very in tune with what WWOOF is all about and it is people like Sally and Costas that give this organization the credibility it deserves.  The amount of time and information they both shared with us was invaluable and I am thankful to have made some good friends along the way.  Another great part is that on many farms there are other WWOOFers and workers who you get to interact with and in this case I was very fortunate to have a group of people dedicated to sustainable local food and experiencing farming firsthand.  A great group to say the least.  Now I'm on to Four Season farm where I will be getting back to the ritual of everyday farming.  Everything I've learned at Stone Barns and the other farms I've been at put to the test.

Some highlights from WWOOFing at Blue Sky Farm


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