Picking Blueberries with a Princess
Thirty-nine years ago, Yvonne Drown of Hope was a contestant in the Maine Wild Blueberry Queen pageant, and nine years ago her daughter, Janelle, was selected Crown Princess, or first runner up. This year mother and daughter are once again involved with the competition, Yvonne as the organizer and Janelle as a judge.
I met with Yvonne this week because, as part of my research for The Wild Blueberry Book (to be published by Down East Books in 2011). I am interested in the ways we celebrate this beautiful and delicious fruit. The pageant is the cornerstone of the Union Fair’s fifty-one-year-old Maine Wild Blueberry Festival, scheduled for August 21 to 28.
Yvonne filled me in on all things Blueberry Queen — for one year, the winner will represent Maine’s blueberry industry at events like the Big E in Springfield, Massachusetts. Afterwards I had the pleasure of helping Yvonne and her granddaughter, Ariana, pick a quart of blueberries at Blueberry Rock Farm in Hope.
Owned by Yvonne’s family for one hundred and fifty years, Blueberry Rock is one of dozens of small farms dotting the hillsides of inland Knox County. In Hope alone, nearly thirty landowners produce nine hundred tons of blueberries a year, and every other year about sixty of those tons come from Blueberry Rock.
Wild blueberries are managed on a two-year cycle: fields are burned or mowed the first year as a means of weed and insect control, resulting in a more robust harvest the second year. This is a harvest year at Blueberry Rock, which is leased by Allen’s Blueberry Freezer, a blueberry processor based in Ellsworth. The sloping meadows are so thick with berries that they are a patchwork of gold and blue, and it took only a few minutes for us to fill the quart box. Of course, we each nibbled a few. They were as sweet as any blueberries I ever tasted.
Any day now a crew of fifty or so migrant workers from Mexico will fan out to rake the berries by hand (the land is too rough for harvesting machines). The boxed berries will be loaded in a refrigerated truck and carted to Ellsworth, where they will be placed in an ice bath so the leaves can be skimmed off the top. Then the berries will be frozen. None will be sold fresh, which made picking with Yvonne and Ariana an extra special treat.