It's the tail end of wild blueberry season here in Maine, and while we could enjoy simply stuffing our faces with the small, tangy Vaccinium angustifolium, which grow on low bushes all around Maine (but especially Downeast, in Washington, Hancock, and Knox counties), we can't help but delve a little deeper into this crop, which grows almost exclusively in Maine and Eastern Canada. Here, a look at some blueberry characters and concerns.
Raking it in
Ike Hubbard speaks fast and staccato. Hubbard is a sturdy man, white-haired and bearded. He's a Maine native, born and raised way Downeast, in Jonesport, and when he was 13 years old, his family moved to South Portland. He's a University of Southern Maine alumnus and a businessman, the proprietor of the Hubbard Rake Company, which manufactures berry-picking rakes.
The rakes provided a way for Hubbard to "get back home again" after graduating from USM with a bachelor's degree in engineering in 1979. (Hubbard, who is now 69, went to college later in life, after a stint in the army and some factory work.)
Old friends and blueberry pickers from Jonesport got in touch with Hubbard to complain about the shoddy quality of the existing model of blueberry rake. "It just wasn't holding up," Hubbard says, and for Maine workers trying to fit in a day of blueberry-picking between lobstering and clam-digging, broken rakes didn't make the grade.
So in the late '80s, Hubbard, always known for his ability to "make anything," headed back down the coast, to do some research and development. What emerged in 1990 was the Hubbard Rake Company, which sells aluminum rakes aimed at making the picker more comfortable while preserving berry quality. Hubbard's two-handled model (like a cross between a trough and a comb), was developed with the input of migrant workers to put less strain on the arms, reducing carpal tunnel symptoms while upping productivity.
And custom fittings ensure that the raking is easier on the back. "The person using my rakes is fitted up suitable," Hubbard says.
"The way we're growing blueberries now is a heck of a lot different from back then," Hubbard says of his days growing up in Jonesport. But while mechanical harvesters now account for about 80 percent of wild-blueberry picking — a fact that could affect Hubbard's profitability — he's not worried yet. For one thing, his rakes have other uses (some people use them to collect sea glass!). For another, his business is "putting people work in Washington County." And as evidence of how his rakes preserve berry quality, Hubbard points to photos on his website (hubbardrakes.com) of wooden baskets and boxes full of light powder blue fruit. He asks, "Aren't those are the most beautiful blueberries?"
Whether scooped by hand-held rakes or gathered mechanically by tractors, Maine's blueberry crop is expected to be down a bit from the recent annual average of 83 million pounds. All told, Maine accounts for nearly all of America's wild blueberry production, and is second to Michigan (which grows cultivated varieties) in terms of overall blueberry production in America. The US grows more blueberries than any other country in the world; Canada ranks second.