When my husband, John, and I first started blueberry farming, we packed our berries outdoors.
John's folks had rigged up a portable packing shed by constructing an expandable hut on a trailer. A tin roof topped the stationary uprights, and the sides of the shed were raised to form awnings.
Galvanized tin had most likely been chosen to keep the expenses low, but it also alerted us to imminent rain when the first drops hit the metal awnings. Hitched to an ancient Massey Ferguson tractor, the shed lumbered along between fields of berries when we moved our operation.
Quaint and practical, the shed was a pleasant place to begin a day. We usually parked it at the edge of a field where blue chicory, orange and yellow hawk weed, and Queen Anne's lace brightened our view.
In the dewy morning hours, still clothed in sweaters, we'd construct cardboard boxes and flats by the hundreds while listening to the brown thrashers. One by one, blueberry pickers drove the dusty farm roads until they spotted the shiny shed that also served as a community center. They'd procure buckets and leave their lunches under the trailer where it was shady. The fragrance of warm corn tortillas surrounded us, and by lunchtime we hoped that we might be offered a few for our meal.
Sometimes pickers brought their children, who flitted about the field like the swallows flying overhead. They learned that if they helped me place green pasteboard pints in the packing flats, they could earn the large box to play in. With two or three youngsters tucked inside, the box transformed from boat, to car, to rocket until it collapsed and became a sled for sliding down Blueberry Hill. Their shouts and laughter blended with the Southern accents and Spanish rising from the field.
And sometimes singing flowed over to where John and I stood beneath the tin awning, slapping cellophane wrappers onto pints filled with blueberries. As it had for laborers throughout the centuries, singing helped pass the time as fingers turned blue and arms grew weary from lugging buckets up the long rows of bushes.
Once a mariachi band that was visiting our area decided to earn a few extra dollars by picking fruit. They yodeled and warbled while filling their buckets and entertained the community that formed during those harvest weeks.
Over the years, our markets have changed. Now a mechanical blueberry shaker the size of a small garage harvests our berries. The tin packing shed leans against the side of an outbuilding, slowly rusting. No longer do we sell fruit in pints and quarts. Now the berries tumble along conveyer belts where they are hand sorted before they drop into 30-pound boxes. Motors hum. The plastic belt clacks and rattles. I stand on a cement floor and remember the early days when grass cushioned my feet.
But above all the rattling and clacking, I listen to ethereal singing as our quintet of young women grade berries. They come from plain-living families in which singing is routine. Someone hums a note, and their voices find the harmonic parts of a hymn.
Their music shimmers as brilliantly as the blue chicory and snowy Queen Anne's lace that once enhanced our harvest setting. Hidden behind a metal funnel, watching berries cascade into a box, I join in the choruses and revel in the music. Laughter punctuates the end of the hymn, and the girls begin to chatter. We head outside during a break and share cookies and lemonade. Their white head scarves glow in the sunshine and they swing their wet skirts.
Though the setting and faces have changed, and the berries fill larger containers, a sense of community remains. The songs and their harmonies differ, but throughout the years, the joy of sharing music has lightened our loads and enriched the harvest. We march back to our positions, ready to raise our voices.