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Harvest ritual

Blueberries lure Micmacs time and again back to Maine

Email|Print| Text size + By Lee Burnett
Globe Correspondent / September 11, 2005

TOWNSHIP 19, M.D., Maine -- This is beautiful country to get lost in: a prairie-like landscape of wooded gullies, unmarked dirt roads, gravel eskers left behind by the glaciers, and wild blueberry barrens stretching horizon to horizon.

Nearly unnoticed every summer, hundreds of Micmac Indians from eastern Canada migrate here, about 10 miles north of Columbia Falls and Route 1, to live in camps and pick wild blueberries by hand. Whole villages relocate for the harvest, a two- to three-week ordeal leavened by laughter, shared meals, card games, and welcome paychecks.

The annual encampment is a tradition with no known beginning. If you close your eyes and listen to the voices of the rakers returning to camp at the end of the day -- the singsongy cadence and gutteral utterances of the Micmac language -- it's easy to believe it's been going on for millennia.

''When did it start? I don't know. It's been a custom, a tradition, you name it. Our ancestors were here. Our parents were here. Our children will be here," says Allison Bernard, 64, a stout man with sad eyes ringed with wrinkles.

While no one knows the origin of the migration, everyone involved is acutely aware of the looming threat to its continuation. Rapid mechanization throughout the blueberry industry has shrunk the harvest labor force by two-thirds in the past decade, according to estimates from two of Maine's largest growers, Cherryfield Foods Inc. and Wyman's. Mechanization in Township 19 has been held at bay only by a handshake agreement between the Micmacs, who rake berries, and the Passamaquoddy tribe, which owns 1,800 acres of blueberry barrens.

The Passamaquoddy ''promised us way back they would never use mechanical harvesters," says Bernard. ''As long as we come to work, they will keep their word." Bernard is sitting barechested in his cabin, sipping Coke from a can and taking short drags on an Export A cigarette. Now in his 51st harvest, he occupies a coveted position as a ''leaseholder" in charge of a 150-person crew and one of five camps.

The harvest is a time of reunion for the Micmacs. For most of the year, they live scattered on more than two dozen tiny reserves from eastern Quebec to Newfoundland, places called Eskasoni, Millbrook, and Shubenacadie in Nova Scotia, and Big Cove in New Brunswick. There are about 20,000 Micmacs and almost all have participated in the harvest at some point in their lives, according to consensus opinion. Many have continuous records of participation going back decades.

''It's a cultural event," says Darrell Newell, 47, the manager of Northeastern Blueberry, the Passamaquoddy-owned company that employs almost all the Micmacs who come to Maine. This year's exodus numbers between 800 and 1,000. Joining the 600 to 800 rakers are about 200 children and nonworking adults.

Up on the barrens of Township 19, the Micmac camps look like something out of the Depression era: faded barracks set in rows along a dusty yard. Each cabin is electrified and has a wood stove, and they are equipped with the finest pickings from yard sales: refrigerators, hot plates, microwave ovens, TVs, even air conditioners. Centralized are a cookhouse, showers, and bathrooms.

''This is a hotel compared to what we used to stay in," says Allison Bernard Jr., 39, a powerfully built man who remembers tenting as a boy. His elders can remember the days of tar-paper shacks with dirt floors when each raker was given a bundle of hay for bedding.

Northeastern Blueberry owns five such camps dispersed throughout the barrens. Their isolation appeals to the Micmacs. Several years ago when Wyman's abandoned its network of dispersed camps in favor of a centralized housing compound with round-the-clock security, it lost its 50-80 Micmac rakers to Northeastern. The perceived loss of independence was the motivating factor, according to Nat Lindquist, vice president for operations at Jasper Wyman & Son.

Each camp is a world unto itself. Bernard Camp, namesake of its patriarch, is occupied almost entirely by year-round residents of Eskasoni, where the elder Bernard was once chief. The place feels intimate at the end of the day. As he maneuvers his tan Ford F-150 slowly over hillock and dip, children run up to him and older folks hail him from their front stoops.

Outsiders are welcome in the camps, though they might be the unwitting objects of sport. Several people interviewed for this story initially told me things that weren't true, apparently to test my gullibility.

''They're good people, they like to joke and give you a hard time," says Andrew Allen, 40, a non-Micmac from Sherman, Maine, who camps at Bernard Camp. ''It's fun hanging out with a different kind of people."

The Micmacs have a word for the time they take from jobs back home to sweat in the hot Maine sun: vacation. They're drawn here not out of economic necessity as many migrant laborers are. They come for the opportunity to live communally, to teach their children the work ethic, and to satisfy their cravings for dyed-red hot dogs, their favorite Maine food. At night there is poker or bingo games, or birthday parties.

''Back home, we wouldn't be all together like this. Everybody would be off doing their own thing," says Frank James Francis, 61, of Eskasoni, taking time out from a lively game of Texas hold 'em to talk in the quiet dark outside. He's here with three of his seven sons.

''If I'm not here, I feel deprived of something," he says. ''Maine is part of us, our mission. It's the people. I guess it's money too, but it's not that much."

The rigor of the harvest is difficult to overstate. The chief implement is a metal rake, which looks like a double-wide dustpan with long tines. Workers bend at the waist and swing their arms side to side.

''It sounds so easy, just picking blueberries," says Josh Sinapass, 16, sitting with two friends in the midday shade of a cabin at Simon Camp. Sinapass is participating in the harvest for the first time. ''It hurts your back and it gets so hot out."

Adds Stephen Clement, 14, ''I feel like an old man."

Workers are out raking usually before 6 a.m., but quitting at lunchtime is entirely acceptable, particularly on a hot day. There seems to be more camaraderie than competition in the fields.

Children as young as 12 participate in the harvest, though younger ones are picked up by bus and taken for the day to school-summer camp at the Machias campus of the University of Maine.

''It's too quiet here," says Hilary Nevin, hanging out with two friends at Centerville Camp as dusk descends. She looks around the unusually empty camp on a Friday evening. Many tenants are gone, the Passamaquoddy natives who have returned to their reservation at Pleasant Point for a big festival. ''This is the last year here. I want to be where the action is."

By that she means Simon Camp, where workers stay all weekend.

The timeless feel to Township 19 is dispelled by driving a short distance south to where, just over the horizon, a half dozen farm tractors with side-attached ''heads" can be found scouring land owned by Cherryfield Foods. Each tractor with a two-man crew can harvest more in a day than a hand raker can harvest in 10.

''Eventually, it will all be done by mechanical harvesters, because you just can't get the people," predicts Amos DuBay, an affable man from Truro, Nova Scotia, who stopped his 90-horsepower John Deere tractor next to the road to right a stack of boxes that had tipped over. ''We don't come to displace people, but it's a short season and you've got to get it done."

The big growers confirm that further mechanization is probable. Cherryfield Foods' payroll is down to 100 rakers, one-tenth of its payroll a decade ago. The company relies primarily on 50 or 60 tractors operated independently.

''We're totally committed to mechanical harvesting," says Ragnar Kamp, Cherryfield's general manager. He said the tractor crews cost half as much as manual labor and are more than four times as productive. ''We simply can't afford manual harvesting; it's too costly."

Jasper Wyman & Son derives 62 percent of its crop from 29 tractors, though the company still employs about 200 rakers, according to Lindquist.

''The trend is toward mechanization, but we will always employ hand-raking crews," says Lindquist. ''I can't tell you the number."

Northeastern Blueberry continues to hold fast to an exclusively manual harvest even though Newell, the manager, concedes that ''It's difficult. It's more efficient to go to mechanical harvesting."

''Our decision is culturally based. We're appreciative of the migration," says Newell.

There were more immediate concerns than mechanization during the first week of this harvest. Late one afternoon, word came of the death of a young man in Big Cove who had sent his two young children -- already motherless -- off to the harvest with relatives.

''It was a real shock," says Vincent Simon, leaseholder of Simon Camp, which is populated by Big Cove-ers. A challenge went out by radio to the rakers to donate a box of income each -- $2.50 -- to the family. Between Simon and Centerville camps, $235 had been raised in two days. Northeastern donated $500.

''She'll get it in cash," says Simon, referring to a relative of the dead man. Simon is a friendly man whose straw cowboy hat and radio paraphernalia give him the air of a sheriff. ''That's the way we are. When tragedy happens, we come together and help."

To nonnatives, the Micmacs' generosity can be breathtaking. Last year, just as the harvest was getting under way, a 17-year-old Columbia Falls girl was declared missing. Though none of the Micmac rakers knew the girl or her family, they got caught up in news of the search, and when her body was found more than a week later, they took up a collection for her two siblings.

They raised $722.50, according to Debra Skeate, whose daughter was a friend of the girl.

''You have no idea what it meant," said Skeate in a telephone interview.

Simon said a half dozen people had attended the man's funeral in Big Cove, a five-hour drive, and returned the next day to Township 19 to continue the harvest.

''Wow," Newell exclaims when told of the rakers' return. ''A typical gesture of commitment to the harvest."

Contact Lee Burnett, a freelance writer in Maine, at leeburnett_maine@hotmail.com.

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