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Maine Has a Berry Serious Business


THE lunch consisted of a fruit salad including blueberries, a fish course with a blueberry sauce, a blueberry drink, a desert covered by a blueberry sauce, and, to top it off, a blueberry-flavored chocolate. After the luncheon, Mary Pivarunis showed off her costume, a huge blueberry with a bulbous nose on one side of the round, blue, plastic foam outfit.

``I never dressed up as a blueberry before,'' said the public relations woman. ``This was different.''

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It was all part of a blueberry promotion, and an example of the highly successful efforts of the Wild Blueberry Association of North America.

Since that association of United States and Canadian wild blueberry growers was established in 1981, the output of these low-bush blueberries has doubled from around 40 million pounds a season to an average of 80 million pounds. Consumers enjoyed them, apparently not minding their tongues turning blue and higher prices. The crop reached 104 million pounds last year, an especially good year. This season's harvest will fall far short of that.

The association's next goal is to get the Japanese fond of blueberry muffins - using, of course, the small, wild berries.

Growers claim their wild berries are tastier and crisper than plumper cultivated blueberries. About 120 million pounds of these ``tame'' berries are harvested each season from taller bushes grown in tidy rows. Many farms are in New Jersey and Michigan.

In Maine, wild blueberries have become an important enough crop that the state's governor, John McKernan, helped give away 1,000 pints of blueberries in Boston's busy Faneuil Hall Marketplace last week. He was joined by agriculture ministers from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick - and Maine's ``Blueberry Queen,'' in an appropriate long blue dress.

Mr. McKernan thinks so highly of the Wild Blueberry Association's work that he would like to see similar joint Canadian-American marketing efforts for other crops, such as potatoes and broccoli.

Maine blueberry farmers have always faced a problem with hungry birds, racoons, and bears. But at some 46 cents a pound from the packer, the price of blueberries has attracted two-legged thieves. Blueberry rustlers last year stole an estimated 1 million pounds, cutting into the state's record 52 million pound harvest last year.

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In May, the Maine Legislature rushed through ``An Act to Discourage the Theft of Blueberries.'' Anyone lugging more than 20 pounds of berries on a blueberry barren must be able to produce written authorization from the landowner. Buyers must keep copies of that permit, including the trucker's name and the amount delivered.

Maine officials hope that potential jail terms for rustlers and fines up to $1,000 for processors who accept undocumented berries will discourage thievery. In New Brunswick, the financial pickings from wild blueberries are good enough that the area devoted to the crop has doubled in the last five years and, according to a provincial official, should double again in the next five years. That province produces about 9 million pounds of berries a season. Nova Scotia has about 1,000 blueberry producers and harvests around 22 million pounds.

Though called ``wild,'' wild blueberry farms are tended. New blueberry farms are often planted on land badly burned by a forest fire. Leveling the land and removing the tree stumps could cost more than $1,000 an acre - a sum that might be covered by the first crop.

New horticultural methods, such as removing plants competing with the blueberry bushes or bringing in bee hives at pollination time, have almost doubled output per acre in the past decade. Once established, wild blueberry fields will produce fruit for perhaps 100 years. They are harvested on a two-year cycle. The fields are pruned every year by mowing or burning to encourage fresh shoots the year after and a crop in the second year.

For more than a century, blueberries have been picked by hand with a steel rake which resembles a dustpan with teeth. Some 6,000 or more pickers keep busy in the fields from early August into September.

But a Nova Scotia firm, Bragg Enterprises, has developed a mechanical picker that attaches to the side of a tractor.

The machine, costing more than $17,000, can harvest four or five acres a day. It replaces 15 to 20 hand pickers. About 100 of these machines are already at work.

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