Inching over the blueberry bushes, the harvester’s fiberglass rods rattle, the conveyor belts roll, and fans blast leaves out of two steel shoots. Like sailing a ship, the machine rides across the bog, offering a stellar view of a sea of green. After almost fifty years of driving a blueberry shaker, he understands what to watch for and also listens to the machine’s noises for any sign of imminent breakdowns.
While we speak of “shaking” off berries, in truth the fiberglass rods tickle the bushes, causing the berries to fall off the branches. John pauses for a moment and adjusts the speed of the rods before resuming the trip down the row. If the rods vibrate too quickly, green berries are also jolted from their perch, or if not enough force is applied, the ripe berries refuse to move. Rather like Goldilocks, he wants the movements to be “just right, shaking off the ripe blueberries, leaving the green ones on the bushes to continue ripening.
Near the underbelly of the machine are two conveyor belts that catch the falling berries and transport them up to the top. A “lug boy” stands near the location where the fruit tumbles into a plastic box pocked with ventilation holes. When about forty pounds of berries fill the lug, the worker slides it aside and replaces it with another empty container. While that one fills, he stacks the full one.
While harvesting blueberries is hot and labor-intensive….the lug boy will lift several tons over the hours…the ride offers the special sights of dragonflies zipping by or hovering along a row. Flocks of crows swoop over the bog, a deer leaps off into the woods, and a Great Blue Heron flaps his wings, flying low over a ditch. Also, unwanted visitors find themselves tossed from the bushes and onto the conveyor belts….small brown snakes, tree frogs, and large green, yellow and black garden spiders sometimes plop into a lug. The worker releases them, but once a Praying Mantis decided to ride the machine for the afternoon.
When several stacks of lugs fill the deck of the machine, John pulls up to a flatbed truck with a blue cab. He and the worker restack the lugs on pallets, rumble up to our warehouse, and transport the pallets with a forklift into a large drive-in cooler. The next morning, I will count the number of pallets as a way to calculate how many hours we will spend packing berries. Normally, we grade a ton of berries in one hour, converting two pallets of berries into sixty thirty-pound boxes stacked onto a single a pallet.
Most of our crop will be frozen, stored in a commercial freezer, and sold to various individuals through our internet and local sales, to stores and restaurants, to food buying clubs here in Michigan and Wisconsin. At some point, various companies such as the jam processer, Food for Thought will pick up a couple of pallets. Throughout the winter and spring, the number of pallets will dwindle and yet, we retain a large enough inventory to supply everyone who orders berries. Often, a customer writes or says, “When I open up a box of your berries, I can smell summer, their fragrance is so intense”. We remember the compliment as the berries roll off the bushes and we store the scents and sights of a summer day inside a box.