Blues beyond pie

By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  August 31, 2011

And research work done at UMaine has brought forth new pest- and crop-management techniques using fewer pesticides less frequently. With such systems, "we can spray 20 percent of the field and get the same effect as spraying the whole field," Yarborough says.

Picking versus paying

Certainly, the advent of mechanized harvesters "changed the complexion of the business quite a bit," according to Ed Flanagan, president and CEO of Jasper Wyman & Son, the largest of about 575 blueberry operations in the state. While Wyman's was a "late adopter" of these machines, the "difficulties of getting labor" combined with technical advances has led to a giant shift, Flanagan says. "Now, two-thirds of our harvest is done by machine," he says.

That's in keeping with the rest of the state. Yarborough says that whereas harvesting in Maine used to be done 80 percent by hand and 20 percent by machine, "they don't have as much hand-labor for harvesting as they had in the past," and today those numbers have flipped.

Where have all the hand-laborers gone? Well, the nation's complicated relationship with immigrants and migrant workers (who comprise the majority of Maine's blueberry pickers) has certainly played a role.

In late July, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency announced that 14 New England employers had been fined "for various violations that enabled companies to hire illegal aliens," according to an ICE news release. Wyman's was one of those 14, and in fact was fined a whopping $118,000.

Flanagan was (and still is) furious. Wyman's had publicly agreed to pay the fine last November, he points out, which leads him to believe that ICE's second announcement was timed "to make a cheap statement to everyone else in agriculture."

In a 2010 letter to US Department of Homeland Security special agent Bruce Foucart protesting the fine in the first place, Flanagan said: "Homeland Security, with this type of approach, will get only minimum necessary cooperation from Wyman's — a natural resources company located near a border that employs many temporary workers . . . Special agent Foucart, we have been left with the impression that the federal government is the enemy. I've been working a long time and this is the first time I've said that."

In the letter, Flanagan claims that "our rakers are paid piece rate" for an average of about $20 per hour. Seasonal factory workers, he continues, receive "a minimum of $9 per hour. It too is hard work but" with overtime it works out to almost $1000 per week. Migrant workers in the United States are covered by the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, which states that such farm workers must be paid minimum wage. Maine's minimum wage is higher than the federal rate. Wyman's workers get free housing and access to food vendors who provide "low-cost meals." It is, effectively, a worker's camp that exists just for a few months at the end of the summer.

In contrast, consider the experience of Yeshe Parks, an artist and former Portlander who's been raking blueberries for four years. He works for a small profit-sharing operation that sells to the fresh market; right now they are working on fields they leased on the backside of Sugarloaf Mountain.

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