Industry

Native Americans were the first people to enjoy wild blueberries. They were used fresh in the summer and were dried for use in fall and winter.

Often wild blueberries were used in breads, cakes, stews, teas and meat dishes. In 1615, Champlain observed Native Americans gathering wild blueberries to make a dish called Sautauthig. The Native people would dry the wild blueberries and beat them into a powder before adding it to parched meat.

Explorers, Lewis and Clark, during their trip to the Northwest Territories, witnessed Natives smoke-drying wild blueberries to use in soups and stews. One dish they made was venison cured by pounding blueberries into the meat and smoke drying it. As well, the wild blueberries were used in spiritual ceremonies of the Native people.

The Maliseet natives valued them because they were believed to bring stamina since they were the food of the bear. Other groups believed that the wild blueberry, with the star shaped crown, was sent by the Creator to feed their children in times of food scarcity.

The first European settlers enjoyed these berries because they were similar to types of berries that grew in their homeland. The Scots associated them with the blaeberry, the Irish with whortleberries, the Danes with bilberries, the Swedes with blabar and the Germans with bickberren and blauberren. The Native North Americans taught them how to prepare them in various dishes in the New World.

Although blueberries have been harvested and sold in New Brunswick for generations, the modern blueberry industry had its beginnings in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Today, the NB wild blueberry industry can rely on cutting edge technology and best management practices that assure a high quality fruit and a production by 10’s of millions of pounds per year.

Over 95% of New Brunswick wild blueberries are sold to processors who clean, sort and grade the berries for freezing. Individual Quick Freezing (IQF) preserves the nutritional value and great taste of berries and makes them easy to pour from the container.

Wild blueberries are sold around the world in over thirty (30) countries. Some key markets are the United States, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom and France. China is perceived as an emerging market with a potential equivalent to the US or even more.

The balance of the wild blueberry production is processed in on-farm processing facilities. These berries are processed into an abundance of innovative, tasty products that include vinaigrettes, chutneys, relishes, and dessert sauces as well as traditional favourites like pies, jams and jellies. There are even blueberry wines and liqueurs produced in New Brunswick.

Wild Blueberry Crop Trends 2012 to 2017 (EST)

Production

In choosing land to grow wild blueberries, producers must consider a number of factors. There must be a good natural base of wild blueberry plants since they are not planted, only managed and encouraged to grow. Most of the management techniques necessary to grow wild blueberries involve running machinery and equipment over the field. It is important that the land be reasonably flat and free of rocks. For this reason, land that was formerly farmed is very good for wild blueberry production.

Forest and brush land can also be developed to grow wild blueberries. To prepare this type of land for production, the trees, stumps and rocks must be removed. Access roads must be constructed and weeds must be controlled. It may take up to 10 years before the grower receives little, if any, income. Once the initial development stage has been completed, the developed field is usually placed on a continuous two-year cycle of a vegetative year followed by a cropping year. It is a common practice to divide the fields so that half of the total acreage is harvested in any one year.

Pruning the wild blueberry is very important. It encourages strong, healthy growth. Pruning consists of mowing or burning the fields in the early spring or fall. This is done every second year. A grower would burn his field in the spring. That summer new stems would grow leaves, but no berries would develop. In late summer and early fall, flower and leaf buds develop. The plants become dormant in the late fall. The following spring, the buds open and flowers and leaves emerge. Flowers are in full bloom by late May or early June. The berries develop over the summer. Wild blueberry fields are sometimes fertilized with nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, boron, magnesium, lime and other nutrients. These nutrients help the plants to have better growth and produce more berries.

Land leveling of wild blueberry fields allows machinery like mechanical harvesters to work on the field. It is done using excavators to remove the soil from knolls and rises, with as little disruption to the plants as possible. This is often done in fields that were previously forested. The fields that were previously farmland are usually flat and already accessible by machinery.

Pollination

Wild blueberry plants bloom in late May or early June. In order for these plants to produce blueberries, the flowers must be pollinated. Pollination is the transfer of pollen from the stamens (male parts) to the stigma, the sticky tip of the pistil (female part) of the flower. Although the pollination process is very brief, it is very important in wild blueberry production. If the blooms are not pollinated, there will be no fruit. Wild blueberry pollination is carried out by insects who transport pollen from flower to flower as they gather pollen and nectar for food. Bees are the most important insects to the wild blueberry crop because they are efficient workers and can pollinate many flowers per day.

There are wild bees, such as the bumblebee, which carry out this job but wild blueberry growers rent hives of managed bees to insure a high level of pollination. Honeybees and alfalfa leafcutter bees are the most commonly used types of managed bees for use in wild blueberry fields. Honeybees were originally from areas of Northern Europe to Southern Africa. They have been the primary pollinators of wild blueberries in the past. They have a distinct social hierarchy that includes queens, workers and drones. The workers are the bees that gather nectar. The colonies continue from one year to the next and some colonies live in the wild but most live in man made hives. Honeybees are able to produce large amounts of honey, unlike bumblebees, and also make beeswax which can be sold and provide income for beekeepers. 18 Alfalfa leafcutter bees are a relatively new introduction to the wild blueberry industry. These bees were brought from Western Canada where they are used in pollinating alfalfa. These bees are beneficial to use in wild blueberry fields because they stay close to the hives and will collect pollen and nectar almost solely from the wild blueberry flowers. Alfalfa leafcutter bees are solitary bees that tunnel and will tolerate living close to one another in man made shelters. The females choose tunnels in the shelters that are made by drilling holes in wood or another material in which to lay their eggs. They cut leaves and form cocoons lined with pollen and nectar for food for the young. Bumblebees are wild bees that live in social groups and nest in old rodent tunnels and under clumps of dead vegetation. The queen is relatively large and emerges in the spring to find a suitable place to nest.

The queen forages and cares for her young workers until they are old enough to forage for the colony. They have large sacks on their hind legs in which they carry pollen, called pollen baskets. In the autumn, the queen gives birth to new queens and male bees called drones. The new queens and drones will mate and the old queen will die. The new queens survive through the winter and create new colonies the next year.

Harvest

Harvest begins in early to mid August when approximately 90% of the berries are ripe. The season lasts about three or four weeks and is probably the busiest time of the year for growers. As the berries ripen, they remain on the plant until most of the berries are ripe. The berries are picked using hand rakes or mechanical harvesters.

In 1883, the wild blueberry hand rake was developed in Maine. The rake is positioned so the tines are parallel to the ground and the rake can be combed up through the wild blueberry plants. As the rake is moved through the wild blueberry stems, it should be tipped back so that the berries fall into the back of the rake and can be emptied into buckets. Problems sometimes arise when the fields have a lot of weeds that become tangled in the rake. Until 1984 the entire wild blueberry crop was harvested by hand raking. Today, crews of people are still used to hand rake some wild blueberry fields. The field is sectioned off into rows using string so that each person has their own row to rake. The rakers fill plastic buckets and take them to the crew leader who records the amount they harvest per day. Rakers are paid based on the volume or mass of berries they rake. In the 1940s, efforts to develop mechanical harvesters began and over the next three decades several prototypes were developed.

In 1984, the first tractor mounted harvesters were used. The harvesters have large rakes on drums that rotate and are attached to tractors. The wild blueberries move up a conveyor belt from the rake onto a platform behind the tractor where workers empty them into crates. More than 60% of the crop is mechanically harvested and the remainder is hand harvested. Mechanical harvesters are reserved for areas where the land is reasonably level and free of rocks, while rough terrain and rocky areas are left for hand rakers.

The wild blueberry crop grows for two years before it is harvested. The effects of pests, disease, drought, frost and hard winters can have longer lasting effects than they do on crops that are harvested every year. Therefore, a low farm income from a poor crop may affect wild blueberry growers for longer periods of time than other farmers. Usually, wild blueberry land is divided so that half of their land is harvested each year.