A view of the camp at Jasper Wyman & Son, where some migrant workers live during the August blueberry harvest. PHOTO BY JACK DODSON

Blueberry rakers converge for a reduced harvest

HARRINGTON — Josè Velasco arrived in Washington County with his young family last Wednesday after driving 18 hours straight from Michigan. They settled into their camp at Jasper Wyman & Son and waited for Friday, when the farms would take applications for rakers.

Velasco, 23, expected to get a job again with Wyman’s. He’d worked there last year. Though he lives in Florida, he has been traveling the country since he was 10, working different harvests. Strawberries in Florida, apples in Wisconsin, high-bush blueberries in Michigan. He came to Maine for the first time last year because he could make more money here than in other places.

“The blueberry raking is tough, but it’s good money,” he said, noting he could make up to $2,000 per week.

Each summer, workers converge on this blueberry harvesting capital. They come from northern Maine, the Southeast United States and many countries in Latin America. Many are Hispanic but live in states such as Texas. This year, some came despite the risk of learning there might be no job for them.

The Passamaquoddy Tribe is not harvesting its 1,000 acres this year due to an industry-wide oversupply of blueberries from last year. That means fewer jobs for migrant workers.

Wyman’s has decreased the number of crews it is hiring because of a shift to machine harvesting, according to Vice President of Operations Homer Woodward. As a result, far fewer workers are expected this year, which will hurt businesses, such as grocery stores, across the region.

Roberta LaBoe and Gabriel Estebrook, who traveled from Caribou to work in the barrens, look for clothes at the Rakers Center

Washington County’s blueberry producers also are facing harsh economic prospects this year from the north. When the Canadian dollar dropped below 70 cents American earlier this year, Canada’s wild blueberries gained a favorable exchange rate. Wild blueberries, unlike the high bush competitors in New Jersey and the American South, can be found only in Maine and Eastern Canada.

These combined factors — competition from north and south, as well as a market glut — have put pressure on the industry to sell off existing inventory, leaving workers with fewer jobs to fill.

On their first day, the Velasco family visited the Rakers Center, an annual pop-up resource for migrant seasonal farm workers who come to Washington County for the late-summer blueberry harvest. The center has Department of Labor information, access to career services, gas and food assistance for qualifying workers and education programs for children, as well as adults looking to gain high school equivalency.

The Velascos were signing their children up for the Blueberry Harvest School run each year out of Harrington Elementary School. They were five of nearly 1,000 expected migrant workers who will be coming to Washington County for August, a number that’s less than half of the workforce seen here in recent years.

Woodward said some Passamaquoddy workers have called him looking for jobs. He said he’s trying to take them where he can.

This lack of jobs, along with a pushed back start-date for harvesting this dry summer, led to a slow first week for the Rakers Center, as workers trickled into the area.

The center itself has been operating for nearly 20 years, according to Jorge Acero, the Maine Department of Labor’s state monitor advocate. It’s organized by a group of services called the Farm Workers Resource Network, and is led by the nonprofit Maine Mobile Health Program.

“As an informal collaborative, we strategize to develop and build services during the peak agriculture season,” Acero said.

With the delay in harvesting this year, Acero said that migrants could feel more pressure — and that’s what the Rakers Center is meant to help with. He referenced a group he’d met earlier that drove nearly 40 hours straight from Eagle Pass, Texas, to Harrington.

“When they get here, they might have car troubles or they might run out of money,” he said. “The worst part is getting here and knowing they won’t get to work for another eight days.”

The center’s various organizations also run field operations by sending people into the camps — the formal setups provided by companies such as Wyman’s and the informal camps set up by the workers themselves. The Department of Labor’s Maine Migrant Education Program runs classes in the camps based on the workers’ needs. They also partner with Milbridge-based nonprofit Mano en Mano, a program that aims to help farm workers settle in Maine. Together they run the Blueberry Harvest School, a short education program for the children of migrant workers.

David Fisk, the state director of the Maine Migrant Education Program, said that having both a desk at the center and a field operation in the camps is really effective.

“If we hear of an area where families have arrived, we’re able to collaborate,” he said. “Having everyone in one place is really helpful.”

Leah Frost, who is the Maine state coordinator for New England High School Equivalency Program, said the center was a good opportunity for her to spread the word about her organization. She didn’t expect people to work with her then, but to sign up after the blueberry harvest is done.

“I think the center is unique in that the blueberry season is kind of unique. It’s such a concentrated time of workers coming together,” Frost said.

At the Blueberry Harvest School, which has been operating for about 40 years, students were already learning despite the slow start to the harvest. Ian Yaffe, the director of Mano en Mano, said the center helps everyone involved in the harvest.

“It’s a pretty critical first place for families to go to get connected to the area,” Yaffe said. “It’s obviously more efficient for families and it’s also more efficient for service providers to be under one roof.”

He said they’ve seen only about 30 children this week.

“That’s pretty low for us,” Yaffe said. “Normally we’d see about 100 kids per day by next week.”

While the services are provided to the workers regardless of how many show up, local businesses see a potentially challenging month in August.

Bruce Mathews, who owns the C.H. Mathews grocery store in Cherryfield, said he’s not too worried about his own shop because he’s across the street from the blueberry processing plants. But he thinks stores in the surrounding towns will have a hard time bringing in revenue.

“Without those two blueberry factories, this store wouldn’t be here, I’ll tell you that,” Mathews said. “Yes, it’s gonna hurt a little bit on what profit I make this year … I just gotta hope for better years ahead.”

His blueberry supplier, Courtney Hammond, isn’t quite as hopeful. Hammond runs Lynch Hill Farms with his family, and last year led a crew for Wyman’s. He said the farmers are feeling a strong pinch in prices.

“The way prices were last year, unless you did all the work on your land, yourself, you’re going to lose money,” he said.

Jack Dodson has worked for The Ellsworth American since mid-2017, and covers eastern Hancock and western Washington counties. He grew up in the Mid-coast region before living in New York City for five years, where he freelanced in documentary filmmaking and journalism. He is particularly interested in criminal justice, environment and immigration reporting.