Maine Gets the August `Blues'

Although most wild blueberries are frozen for food companies, fresh is still best for amateur harvesters -- including bears

WHEN Dawn Staples-Knox was a waitress and customers asked "Is the blueberry pie fresh?" she could honestly answer: "Yes, I picked the blueberries this morning."

Ms. Staples-Knox grew up and still lives on a blueberry farm here in Stockton Springs, Maine. Nowadays she is a schoolteacher and a mother. She still picks a lot of blueberries.

Staples' Homestead, as it is called, is a picturesque farm of several homes and 210 acres of rolling hills, blueberry fields, and managed woodlands. Basil and Mary Staples, Dawn's parents, are the sixth-generation Staples to own the land, originally bought by Jonathan Staples in 1838.

For the Stapleses, and families like them, August is time for "the blues." Blueberry farming is steeped in family tradition in Maine, known for its short but celebrated berry season. It's not unusual that a blueberry farm has been in a family for generations, says Ed McLaughlin, executive director of the Maine Blueberry Commission.

Such families help make Maine the biggest producer of blueberries in North America, says Mr. McLaughlin, based at the University of Maine at Orono. In 1990, Maine produced 75 million pounds of berries. Last year, only 39.9 million pounds were harvested before the season was "frosted out." As for this year, McLaughlin says: "If we're able to harvest into September, it'll be a very good year."

The wild blueberry industry in Maine is showing signs of growth both in local production and worldwide appeal. In the past 10 years, 8,000 more acres of blueberries have entered the Maine market, McLaughlin says, and yields per acre are also rising through better management. The fact that tourism peaks when the blueberry season peaks also helps, he adds.

Most of Maine's blueberries are picked by hand, separated, frozen, and sold to food processors to be used in such things as muffin mixes. The berries are also exported to Europe (Germany is the No. 1 buyer) and, more recently, Japan. "Japan has been a steady good buyer for us.... One of the things they liked about the blueberry was the blue color," Mclaughlin says. Next, he says, the industry will target South Korea.

FRESH wild blueberries represent less than 1 percent of the market, but berry farmers like the Staples still enjoy offering a small part of their fields to "pick your own" customers.

"This is just something we thought we'd start," says Mary Staples matter-of-factly. Daughter Dawn adds, "we enjoy meeting people ... educating them about blueberries."

Wild blueberries are a special crop - the plants are more like shrubs, Dawn explains. Nearly 75 percent of the plant is underground, and every year it produces fewer berries. So farmers "trick mother nature," as Dawn puts it. Every other year - after harvesting - the bushes are mowed off. Then, in the fall or spring, the fields are burned. The first year the new blueberry plants grow, but produce no berries. The second year, the plants blossom and produce berries.

Blueberry plants thrive in very acidic soil. There are some 20 blueberry varieties - differentiated by the way they grow, their color, and other characteristics.

On any sunny August day at Staples' Homestead, eager pickers aged 3 to 75 crouch down to beckon berries from bushes, either by hand or with special, hand-held "rakes." These wild blueberries, also known as "low bush" blueberries, are small (about the size of a paper-punch hole) compared with high-bush, cultivated berries grown in, say, Michigan and New Jersey. The flavor of the wild berries is considered more robust.

Even an amateur harvester can fill a quart fairly quickly. Dawn says 15 minutes per quart is a fast time for her, not allowing for any hand-to-mouth harvesting. (The Staples don't spray their "pick-your-own" field with pesticides.) Pick-your-own quarts cost 75 cents. If you buy one already picked, it's $2.25. "They freeze beautifully," Dawn says.

The Staples have met people from as far away as Alaska and California in their "pick your own" field. Recently, though, they've gotten some uninvited guests roaming - and rolling - around in their sweet blueberry fields: bears.

Although no one has seen the four-legged berry-eaters yet, a mother bear and her cubs feed regularly, judging from the flattened-out spots in the back fields.

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