About the Author
Tom Fritzsche (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org) of Kennebunk has worked as a blueberry raker and is a student at NYU Law School in the Bickel & Brewer Latino Human Rights Institute.
In rural Columbia Falls (year-round population: 599), a dome with a sign saying Wild Blueberry Land stands as a wonderfully garish advertisement of Down East's agricultural heritage and most famous export.
The 20-foot blue dome houses every blueberry-related product imaginable, including T-shirts bearing cute anthropomorphic berries dancing on the front and a bold "Born to be Wild" slogan on the back. Maine promotes the berries and their mythology not just at the quirky museum store, but also in at least four wild blueberry festivals.
But there's something lacking: At one of the festivals or a store, a visitor can find everything pertaining to blueberries except for the people who harvest the fruit.
An industry once dominated by local whites and Mi'kmaqs from the Canadian Maritimes seeking to supplement their income from non-farm jobs became dependent on migrant Mexicans and Hondurans, arriving in larger numbers since the early 1990s. This transition connected a remote part of Eastern Maine to what is referred to as the Eastern Stream of agricultural labor migration.
The modern history of Maine's blueberry harvest perhaps began with the first efforts at mechanization in the 1970s. The industry's slow and ongoing transition to harvester machines was made smoother by 15 years of labor from a few thousand Latinos, mostly Mexican, who annually journeyed here in order to work a month raking blueberries.
Many farm workers describe wild blueberry raking as the most physically painful agricultural work in the country because of the unavoidable and excruciating back pain caused by spending nine or more hours stooping to reach ground level.
Creative rakers have improvised rake adaptations to reduce somewhat the need to bend over and to increase the yield per sweep of the rake. Nonetheless, even veteran farm workers with experience in the toughest jobs around wince under the strain and complain even early into a workday.
The harvest is not without its rewards, as many rakers say they can earn better pay through wild blueberry piecework than they can in many other East Coast farm work jobs, if they are working in a field laden with large and plentiful berries. The trouble for rakers has been, increasingly, that they are not assigned to rake these good fields, where they can earn the most money for their hard labor. The most productive fields are also the flattest, least rocky fields, making them prime for the machines brought down from Canada, where the harvest finishes earlier.
As the work force has become more Latino and the number of rakers has diminished due to mechanization, the rate paid per box of wild blueberries has dropped in real terms.
Rakers are paid $2.25 per 23-pound box of berries, with occasional augmentations to offset exceptionally poor fields. This per-box rate is the same as it was in 1975, when $2.25 had the same purchasing power as $8.49 does in 2006.
This change has not been uncontested, as white, American and Canadian Indian and Latino workers have all led strikes at different points since 1975. Each major strike was immediately successful in accomplishing such goals as better housing, more frequent emptying of latrines and a return to the customary wage after a pay cut. However, no lasting economic improvements resulted.
As the harvest ends and we rightfully celebrate the antioxidant-rich product of Maine's wild blueberry industry, we would all do well to understand its history and its people.
Though migrant farm workers are happy to have the jobs, their back-breaking labor should not be left out of the celebrations, and their families should not be excluded from the profits.
‹ Special to the Telegram