History in the Wild Blueberry Barrens
Spring is finally breaking on the New Brunswick border in Down East, Maine, where the St. Croix River cuts a fluid natural boundary between the United States and Canada and Wild Blueberry fields cover the land.
“It was one of the coldest winters we’ve seen in decades; we had about 160 inches of snowfall and, yes, there is still snow in the woods,” says Greg Bridges, a third-generation Wild Blueberry grower who operates a vast stretch of open fields and barrens interrupted only by enormous boulders, coniferous forests, and an occasional black bear or moose.
Greg, a husband, father of three, and grandfather of one, has the calm demeanor that’s typical of a Down Easterner. He spent time chatting with us about the history of his farm and the work that has commenced at this time of year since his family arrived on the barrens in the 1800s.
“With longer days and stronger sunlight, the ground is finally warming and things are progressing quickly, so I can get back into the fields,” says Greg. After a cold winter, it’s typical for farmers to worry that they aren’t getting out on the land by a certain date, admits Greg. “But Mother Nature has a way of working things out, ” he laughs. Greg is planning to start pruning (aka mowing) his fields any day now and he’s getting his farm equipment ready for the busy season ahead. Wild Blueberry growers farm on a two-year cycle, which means half of the fields “rest” for a year while the other half is harvested. “Because of the two-year cycle, we actually have to worry about the crop over two years,” says Greg.
“A lot has changed since my grandfather’s era when everything was done by hand and the only heavy equipment owned by most farms was a truck,” says Greg. The fields were so rough and full of boulders that the Wild Blueberry plants had to be cut by hand or managed with matches and a fire. Today, most farms use large excavators to pick rocks out of their fields and mechanical mowers to prune their plants. “Burning is more expensive and uses fossil fuels,” he says. “Mowing is more environmentally friendly and has the benefit of creating compost every year that benefits the plants.”
A Long, Hard History of Farming
Like so many of Maine’s Wild Blueberry growers, Greg has a deep affinity for his land and his heritage, and he will gladly expound on his ancestor’s demanding rural legacy. “My great grandfather and his father were subsistence farmers. Then, in the early 1900s, Bridges Wild Blueberry Farm was established by my grandfather,” he recounts. “In those early years, life was really tough and the family lived hand to mouth.”
Around 1915, Greg says his grandfather Colin Bridges was digging the town ditches to help pay the annual taxes on his land when along came a man who told him he was being drafted.
“Drafted?” he asked, “For what?”
“You’re being drafted for the Great War,” he was told. Greg says his grandfather knew nothing about World War I but soon found himself heading to the battlefields of Europe. “He saw a lot of atrocities over there, but he survived to tell the stories and eventually came home to the farm,” recounts Greg. After World War I, Colin Bridges was a changed man. “I think the War opened his mind to what he wanted in his life,” says Greg. His grandfather came home from the war restless and driven. He started opening businesses with a feverish pace. He opened a sporting camp, a sawmill, and a car dealership. He even plowed county roads in the winter. And of course, there was the Wild Blueberry farming.
In those days, most people migrated back to the barrens after a winter of doing other work. “Everyone lived seasonally back then – working in the woods in the winter, clamming on the coast in the summer, making wreathes at Christmas time,” says Greg. While there are still pockets of people who live seasonally, most people have moved into single occupations and are focused on one job, which means that farmers are having to do more by themselves.
Pollinating the Wild Blueberry crop
Greg says much of his work is solitary, but he has the benefit of a wife, a daughter, two sons, several dozens seasonal workers who arrive each year to help on the farm. And of course, there are the honeybees, another group of “seasonal migrants” who provide the magic of pollination, without which there would be no fruit at all.
“Pretty soon we will be putting bees into the fields,” says Greg, with a smile. The bees come from a Maine beekeeper named Lincoln Sennet at Swans Honey in Albion. “Lincoln is based here in Maine and he has quite a flock of beehives,” says Greg. “We have worked with Swans for years and our relationship goes back generations,” Greg says, adding that it takes only two weeks or so for the bees to pollinate the Wild Blueberry fields, yet the service they provide is invaluable.
The Summer Ahead
The cycles of the farm are enduring and the success of the harvest depends on many factors: pollination, weather, heat, precipitation, people, and so much more. So far, Greg says the year is unfolding in a favorable fashion. “After a cold winter and a heavy blanket of protective snow, we are finally starting to experience spring.” The summer and the harvest will be here before you know it.