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Blueberry fields forever

It’s crunch time on this small, family-run farm. From picking to packing to market, this is a labor of love.

Thirty acres of the farm are in low-bush blueberries; they harvest 17 tons in a good season. But the financials are a strain: The farm might bring in up to $7,000 per acre in a good year, but a third of that will go to labor costs, machinery, and other expenses. Thirty acres of the farm are in low-bush blueberries; they harvest 17 tons in a good season. But the financials are a strain: The farm might bring in up to $7,000 per acre in a good year, but a third of that will go to labor costs, machinery, and other expenses. (Photographs by Josh Campbell)
By Jessica Lander
July 17, 2011

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Andy Geddes can’t stand to eat blueberries. All summer long, his dreams are ripe with them. “I see little blue dots whenever I close my eyes,” he says, a grimace growing on his round face. Teenage Andy, one of the Geddes clan’s younger generation, has been enlisted to work on the family’s farm in the town of Gilmanton, tucked into the folds of lower New Hampshire. “Blueberries are our job,” he explains. “It would feel weird to eat them.”

This is a sentiment I do not share. Since I was 7 years old, I have spent my summers in Gilmanton and, come July, make regular pilgrimages to the Geddes farm to check when the blueberries will ripen. While a devotion to local foods has only recently become trendy across the country, it has long been the norm in Gilmanton, which supports multiple maple syrup shacks, dairies, fruit orchards, smoke shacks, and bee farms, as well as vegetable gardens on the land of most households. Each year, my family of five brings home two 20-pound boxes of the Geddeses’ berries to turn into jam, pies, smoothies, and sorbet. But when we first collect our prize, there is always a rush of hands, digging deep and emerging with glistening heaps of berries quickly ferried to waiting mouths.

Having eaten their berries for most of my life, I recently visited the Geddeses for a different purpose: to learn more about the realities of running a small New England farm. The Geddeses have been harvesting blueberries since David Geddes Sr. started their farm more than a half-century ago. His son Duncan runs it today, assisted by the rest of the family. Thirty acres of the farm are in low-bush blueberries; they harvest 17 tons in a good season. But the financials are a strain: The farm might bring in up to $7,000 per acre in a good year, but a third of that will go to labor costs, machinery, and other expenses. The Geddeses’ low-bush blueberries – a native strain often called “wild” – are nothing like their high-bush, marble-sized relatives: They are sweeter, smaller, and vastly harder to pick. Consequently, few privately owned small farms have remained in business. To supplement his income, Duncan relies on a host of other part-time jobs, including tapping maple syrup in the spring and his year-round trucking business. “Don’t try making a living off this,” he says to me. “A true farmer can’t explain why he farms.”

***

Andy balances a wooden crate, shaggy with twigs, leaves, and blue orbs the size of Dippin’ Dots ice cream, at the top of the sorting machine, which resembles a mechanized marble run. In an indigo trickle, blueberries stream from between Andy’s fingers, tumbling down a foot-long belt. The berries traverse a series of three angled conveyor belts separating ripe berries from twigs, leaves, and pinprick green fruit – “pig berries,” fit only for the neighborhood swine.

Three local teens sit huddled along the final belt. Shoulders hunched, heads bent, their hands glide across the stained surface like gulls above the surf and then dive when they spot a target. Fingers pinch, rise again, a berry suspended – green or red or oozing juice.

Swathed in breathable cellophane and cinched with a rubber band, pints and quarts are nestled snug in a cardboard flat. Tonight – late Tuesday or very early Wednesday – Duncan will play chauffeur to as many as 90 flats of blueberries, each weighing approximately 15 pounds. The berries picked Monday and Tuesday are taken to the New England Produce Center in Chelsea, near Boston, where they are sold to independent wholesale buyers who then resell to retailers later that morning. Blueberries picked on Wednesday and Thursday are distributed to farmers’ markets between Gilmanton and Salem, Massachusetts. Friday’s fruit is sold locally.

In the past day, the Geddes crew, including Andy, has sorted 92 wooden crates. I take a vote. In the barn, the tally is unanimous – blueberries are not for eating.

***

A few days later, I am again at the Geddes farm. Roll call for blueberry raking is at 8 a.m., and I have promised to be prompt. I arrive at 7:30. Anna Geddes, the widow of David Sr., presides at the kitchen table. I ask her whether she eats the blueberries. “I don’t touch the blueberries till November, then I’ll make a few pies for Thanksgiving.”

Duncan lumbers into the kitchen. His face is round, his graying beard kept short. Dark eyes are sharp under a red baseball cap. His arrival is the signal to depart for the fields. Boys, seven in all, stream out of the shade, engulfing the sides of a dented pickup truck and filling up the back. I sink down into the passenger seat – the coils having long since lost their spring. Duncan slides behind the wheel and we are off.

Duncan is wide-eyed and talkative. No one would suspect him of just coming off a round trip to Chelsea Market – 90 miles and back. “Staying awake is easy,” he assures me. “I would have a harder time if it was late afternoon.” Not that he slept the previous afternoon. Duncan’s schedule yesterday, as he tells it: raked with the boys all morning, hauled horse manure as part of his trucking job, helped sort berries in the barn, stacked the truck high with blueberry flats. At 10 p.m., he ate dinner. From 11:30 to midnight Duncan took a nap before heading south.

In blueberry season, which is August, plus a week or so on either end of the month, Duncan drives weekly to Chelsea. By 4 in the morning, the farmers are supposed to have unloaded their produce, received their checks, and shifted their trucks into gear. But Duncan likes to linger. After selling his berries, he wanders away for an hour – sometimes marketing his maple syrup, which he boils in April – before returning to observe consumers buying his blueberries. Retail customers pay an average of $4.75 per pint and $6.20 per quart. (The harder-to-pick low-bush blueberries fetch double the price of high-bush berries.) Duncan swears he is not tempted even to glance at the amount his berries fetch on a given morning, but by appearing to do so, he says, he keeps the wholesalers honest. Retail buyers, who arrive at 5, will sometimes approach him in the market offering to buy direct, but despite the prospect of higher profits, he declines. Duncan relies on the middlemen who buy in bulk: “It’s all about fair play.”

Despite the early morning pilgrimage, today is just another workday, and Duncan has no intention of altering his routine simply because he has hardly slept for 24 hours. The truck swings right, and we roller coaster through the woods, up and down dirt roads, the truck jittering in an over-caffeinated sort of way. We swerve up to the left, out of the trees, climb steeply up a meadow, painting the tires blue with squished berries. Duncan parks halfway up and boys tumble out, wooden boxes in hand. Rakes are distributed – dulled metal, a cross between a dustpan and a long-toothed comb. Blueberry bushes are everywhere – the ground is a two-tone Georges Seurat: blue on green.

Duncan stands squarely, ringed by heavy-eyed boys, all thinner and most taller than he. He is doling out reprimands. “Yesterday’s berries were wet.” Buyers desire dry berries with powdery white coats. Punctured berries leak juice, turning the skins slick and wet. “If I can’t sell them, I can’t pay for them.” Duncan does not yell. Yelling is unnecessary; his solemn demeanor is enough. The boys, all in their late teens, examine the rubber of their shoes and offer no excuses.

Dismissed, the pickers spread out in lanes, 5 feet apart. Duncan strolls among them, offering precise instructions. “Just run your rake slowly and carefully, low to the ground, and make sure you get them all. Start where the berries begin. Don’t skip berries.” When blueberry season comes, Duncan need not look for rakers; wannabe rakers come looking for him. The hours are 8 a.m. to noon, an hour for lunch, and another three hours in the afternoon. Rakers earn two dollars from every field box filled. A swift raker can sweep 70 dollars in a day.

Duncan retraces his steps between beech saplings. “I’m really hard and fussy with these kids,” he says, his tone unabashed. “I’m cheap. I want all the berries I can.” Duncan’s fastidiousness seems justified. Berries knocked to the ground can lead to maggot worms and diseases among the berries on the bushes. At market, certain buyers won’t take anyone’s berries but his. Out in the field, Duncan can be found bent double, rake clasped loosely in hand. Duncan never brings his own box. He plucks berries from the bushes skirting trees and lacing stone walls – areas requiring an expert hand. Once full, Duncan empties his rake into a picker’s crate. “I like to help them out,” he admits.

Duncan leads me up past bent boys, their backs glistening, past the truck, past the stone wall where Duncan remembers having his last good chat with his father before he died. Up, up, up to the shoulder of the field where the treetops drop away. Mountains pierce the horizon, and Duncan points to one in particular, a peak nicknamed Blueberry Mountain, in the nearby town of Alton. It was on those slopes where Dave Sr. learned to rake berries in the 1950s. The story goes that a vengeful neighbor attempted to burn two nearby homes. He ended up burning the entire mountain. The following year the slopes were swathed in wild blueberry bushes. Over a dozen blueberry farms sprouted along Gilmanton hillsides in the years that followed. The Geddeses’ is one of the few that has remained.

***

Later in the morning I receive a lesson in raking. First Duncan selects a rake, its polished wooden handle nearly silky from years of use. Blueberry rakes are varied in shape, size, and personality: short-bodied rakes, 15 inches with elongated teeth; long and lean rakes, 2 feet long with stubby incisors. There are wooden handles and metal handles, aluminum rakes and aged tin rakes, blotchy-skinned.

For new rakes there is only one company where farmers can go: Hubbard Rake Co. in Jonesport, Maine. Harold Hubbard, known as Ike, tells me that, as far as he knows, he is the world’s only manufacturer of blueberry rakes, selling more than 860 last year. He ships to everyone: large corporations, small-scale farmers, families with backyard berry patches. Duncan buys only a few new rakes; most he unearths in antique shops, where they cost around 40 dollars each. Rake selected and wooden box in hand, I trail Duncan toward a low stone wall and a tree providing an umbrella of shade. “Start where the berries begin; you don’t want any behind you. Wrap your fingers around the handle, but keep your thumb in front.” I clutch the wooden handle as if it were the end of a hose – four fingers down, thumb over the top.

Duncan demonstrates the proper movements, breaking down a fluid motion into stop-action steps. First the rake performs a shallow dive into the foliage, teeth pointing down. Quickly it levels out parallel to the ground. It surfaces a foot away, foaming with berries, twigs, leaves, the base remaining half submerged. Next comes the tricky part. Duncan jiggles the rake backward, the bottom of the pan riding the ground, dislodging berries held between tines. If he were simply to wrench the rake from the bushes, the berries would be mangled. Duncan then runs his hand rapidly along the bottom of the rake. Leaves and twigs leap free. With a final flourish, Duncan tips the corner of the rake over the box, its contents tumbling out.

Then he passes the rake to me. After a few minutes of observation he leans over to encase my hand in his – large and callused. He guides me, the rake flying across the bushes. When Duncan rakes, his movements are decisive but tender. He never sweeps an area more than once, there is no need. He tells me his father was the best of rakers; “he never wasted a motion.”

By 10:30 the supply of empty crates runs low. I help to load full boxes into the belly of the pickup truck. Thirty in all. On the drive back to the barn, I ask Duncan whether he eats blueberries. The answer is unequivocal: “I love blueberries any way they come!” But when raking, Duncan never snacks, not even to taste a berry or two. “If I did that I wouldn’t be able to stop.”

Jessica Lander is a freelance writer based in Cambridge. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

  • July 17, 2011 cover
  • July 17, 2011 cover
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