Wednesday, August 11, 2010

At Blueberry Harvest Time, Picking at Peak Means an Endless Summer

Ah, summer. If only we could extend the colorful, fresh bounty of the season all winter long. But wait a minute – it seems we can. There are millions of pounds of wild blueberries currently being captured and quick frozen at their very peak of flavor and nutrition. We can use them at our discretion any time of year.

August is harvest season, and that means efforts to provide us with an endless summer, at least when it comes to berries, are going on right now. Thank goodness!  Enjoying flavorful blues from the freezer for breakfast, desserts, entrees, and salads is one of the best ways to integrate potent nutrients into your diet, get your required daily servings of fruits and veggies, and bask in a little taste of summer gone by.

If you've ever wondered what goes into harvesting this antioxidant and anti-aging hero, here's a little bit of blueberry back-story just in time for harvest season.

Barrens in Bloom

 Maine averages 70 million pounds of blueberries per year.
Remember that wilds are different from cultivated berries: they are smaller, they showcase an array of color variations and flavor that ranges from sweet to tart, and their high skin-to-pulp ratio means they are super-concentrated with powerful antioxidants. Also called "low-bush blueberries," wilds are exclusive to the regions of Maine and Eastern Canada where large stretches of barrens produce this indigenous fruit – over 60,000 acres of blueberry farmland stretch across Maine alone, providing an average 70 million pounds of berries each year. Canadian provinces including Nova Scotia, Quebec, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland also boast robust wild blueberries crops. It's here that they have naturally evolved to thrive in the challenging acidic soils and under the environmental stresses of changing temperature that the four diverse seasons provide. The result is the distinctive color, plant height, taste, and fruit size of the wild blueberry.

To take best advantage of the flourishing fruit, beginning at the end of August, farmers throughout Maine and Canada engage in a commercial harvesting process which originated back in 1874.

Talk of the Town
Many blossoms herald a promising crop.

August is the culmination of a two-year growing cycle; growers rotate their crop by harvesting half of their acreage each year. For local growers, the process incorporates a unique dedication to agricultural practices that ensure healthy crops for generations to come. But the crop’s success is dependent on many factors both in and out of a blueberry farmer’s control. High yield depends on moisture, winter snow coverage, a lack of damaging frosts, and bee pollination. Farmers hope for high numbers of fruit per plant to indicate a productive season – blossoms average five or six per bud but can top 15 if conditions are good.

During harvest season, towns that are home to large wild blueberry farms are focused on the season's take. The crop is clearly a source of pride: discussions in local shops in areas like Machias revolve around the health and abundance of the year's crop, and dessert in local restaurants is always blueberry pie. Fair and festival preparations are in full swing, and the towns buzz with activity as populations swell with those involved and employed with the harvest.

Tradition & Technology

While stories of migrant workers traveling to Down East Maine to engage in dawn-till-dusk labor to clear the barrens of their fruit do still paint an accurate picture, today, capturing wild blueberries at the height of taste and nutrition requires a mixture of traditional and high-tech methods.

Tradition & technology combine during the harvest.
Hand raking is a tradition that has held since the onset of commercial harvesting, but roughly half of modern operations use mechanized harvesting. While some may mourn the lost art of raking by hand, mechanizing means growers can mow the grounds, a practice that is more environmentally sound than traditional burning. It also lessens their dependence on hard-to-find hand labor. Cleaning processes in factories also use state-of-the-art computer controlled equipment, ensuring only ripe tasty blueberries end up in the carton, tub, bag or pouch, at the other end of the process.

Picked at Peak

While fresh cartons of berries are a welcome sight in late summer, in fact, 99% of the wild blueberry crop is frozen, using the individually quick freezing method (IQF) which allows for the fast preservation of taste, nutrition, and antioxidant power. IQF blueberries can remain frozen for over two years without losing their flavor or nutritional value. While the fresh-pack industry is very small, it has garnered growing interest from farmers because of the added value that comes with eliminating processing. Some farmers even freight fresh berries out-of-state to places as far flung as Texas, so buyers can enjoy the taste of the indigenous wild fruit straight from the field.

It's the dedication of growers and their efforts during the harvest season that has made this unique fruit with its taste, nutritional attributes, and overall mystique the health icon it is today. So take some time to celebrate this delicious gift that gives all year long!

Wild Blueberries: The Pick of the Season

This season, industry reports indicate a banner year for the lauded berry. While farmers are busy in the fields, you can get a taste of the harvest, too. Many farms offer u-pick opportunities – it’s a perfect summer family activity, and even better, one that culminates in a cake, cobbler or pie. 

If you can't get out to the field yourself, don't worry. August is the month where wild blueberries practically come to you. You're guaranteed to find quarts at gas stations, convenience stores, farm stands and on the roadside.

Pick your own in Maine or find farms in Canada where you can pick your own berries.

Bake a Lemon Glazed Wild Blueberry Cake or a Wild Blueberry Crisp with your booty from the field.

Find a local supplier of wild blueberries.

Learn more about the wild blueberry harvest and the importance of blueberry bees.


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