Monday, April 19, 2010

Blueberries for All

Today I planted out a few high-bush blueberry bushes in the garden by the old store, and I intend to plant more there in the lower part, where the soil is rocky and hasn't been good for much in the past few years. Blueberries chiefly like acid in the soil, and don't need much else. High-bush blueberries are larger but not as tasty as low-bush. But low-bush blueberries are very difficult to propagate. Neither taste especially good after they've been frozen, but it's possible to freeze and keep them for months of eating during the year. I do have a few low-bush blueberry patches around this property, and in August the birds and I enjoy the berries for a couple of weeks. It remains to be seen whether these high-bush plants will do well here.

Robert McCloskey's classic children's book, Blueberries for Sal, was written about the low-bush blueberry native to this region, growing on the rocky ledges covered with so thin a layer of acidic soil that little else will survive there. The low-bush blueberry is a testimonial to survival in yet a second way, as its antioxidant, cancer-prevention properties are making it a popular food among the segments of the population that pay attention to healthful eating. 

Blueberries are a commercial crop in this section of the state, Hancock County, and even more so in neighboring Washington County to the north. In the spring, some blueberry fields are burned to the ground; the weeds are killed and the low-bush blueberry bushes survive, although it takes them a year and a half after the burning to produce a crop. Nowadays tractors with water tanks, and flame-throwers to start the fires, are standard equipment for the burns, but I recall 35 years ago helping a friend burn his field the old-fashioned way, with matches for fire and Indian pumps with tanks worn on your back to drench the edges of the areas where the fire was to stop. These days you can sometimes find Indian pumps in antiques shops; you won't find them in use on blueberry fields except by people who are nearly too old to be working in them anyway. The bushes bloom in June, and by late July the blooms have turned to small green berries, which become blue in August, ripe and ready to be raked. Raking is still a hand operation, and workers--many of them migrants--can be seen in the fields bent over with their hand rakes working away and filling boxes and buckets with berries. 

The increased demand for blueberries as a part of a healthy diet has, in a tragedy of the commons scenario, led to overproduction and thus lower prices--good for the eater, bad for the farmer. Last year wholesale prices were so low that an organic farming family from this area found that the only way to break even was to truck their blueberries 120 miles south to Portland to sell to Whole Foods Market which, for those who may not know, is a chain of upscale supermarkets that feature organic and "natural" foods, usually at high prices. And they surely had some "carbon regret" over the fuel consumed on these truck-runs; they would much prefer to sell locally. 

In this farm family's response to overproduction some would see the invisible hand of the self-regulating market in operation. Next year, the conventional economic wisdom would have it, farmers won't produce so many blueberries and the price will go back up. Instead farmers should raise other crops and livestock for which there is more demand and less supply. But will they? Suppose you are a blueberry farmer and you can raise a good crop. You're set up for blueberry farming; it's the best use of the land, the thing you do best. Sure, you could go over to something else, but that's a lot of startup work and you wouldn't have as good a competitive advantage. And so if the invisible hand works as it should and next year the other farmers raise crops and livestock instead of raking their blueberries for market, you can still realize your blueberry crop and with a smaller supply of berries now that the other farmers have reduced their production, the price you get will have gone up. But if enough blueberry farmers think this way, then the overproduction will continue, the price will remain depressed, and instead of working for the benefit of the farmers, the invisible hand will squeeze them out.

Luckily, my high-bush blueberry plants, if they flourish and bear, will escape this invisible hand. It was said that Helen and Scott Nearing, the famous back-to-the-land pioneers who lived "the good life," as they wrote about it, not too far from here decades ago, got their cash from raising high-bush blueberries, but I believe that after they died it was revealed that Scott had a pretty nice inheritance which helped them make ends meet. All that plain living and high thinking is more easily done when there's a financial moat around you, and an inheritance is more secure than high-bush blueberries. Or low-bush, for that matter.

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