Blueberry Harvest Time

Ahhh, the delicious wild blueberry.  At Watts Tree Farm we have about 5 hectares (12 acres) in production.  I haven’t written much about blue berries in my blog yet so I think it is time to correct that.  Many people probably do not understand the production cycle or just how do these vines get here in this field.  I hope I can explain it in terms that are understandable to everyone.  It is really kind of fascinating.

Field of wild blueberries ready for harvesting.  Different clones produce different looking berries.  You can see the variations across the field as slightly different colors.

Field of wild blueberries ready for harvesting. Different clones produce different looking berries. You can see the variations across the field as slightly different colors.

There are essentially two types of blueberries that people can buy in the market.  There are “high bush” blueberries, which we low bush (wild) blueberry growers refer to as the “other” blueberry.  And of course, there is the superior tasting wild blueberries.  In case you are wondering the difference in the store, the high bush berries look really good and tend to be larger than low bush blueberries but they usually lack the taste of the wild berries.  The low bush, wild blueberries grow only in the most northern parts of the United states and Canada.  I expect there are some in Europe as well.

So why do we refer to them as wild?  Well there is a perfectly good reason for this.  It is because they grow “wild” in the forest of this region.  The vines of blueberries grow naturally in the forest.  Although we refer to them as “vines” they are in reality a shrub. They tend to prefer softwood stands over stands of hardwood.  I am not sure why but I think they like the soil a bit more acetic which would occur more naturally in softwood stands.  These vines can grow in the shade of trees for decades and probably centuries with out producing fruit.  They flourish in full sunlight and this is when they products the berries.  In the natural evolutionary world this would happen every once in a while when a forest fire would burn through a stand of trees.  The blueberry vines would get full sun and grow vigorously and begin to produce sweet blueberries.

Here is the dividing line between a "sprout year" on the right and a "crop year" on the left.  This photo was taken in June when the blueberry vines were in full bloom.  The following year this will be completely opposite.

Here is the dividing line between a “sprout year” on the right and a “crop year” on the left. This photo was taken in June when the blueberry vines were in full bloom. The following year this will be completely opposite.

In our woodlot we have stands of softwood trees with the vines growing underneath the trees.  In fact more than 50 percent of our woodlot is in this state.  So as this is a naturally occurring forest vine, wild blueberries are in fact a “Non-Timber Forest Product”.  I will talk much more about Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFP) in future blogs.  It was a decision a few years ago to devote a portion of Watts Tree Farm to blueberry production.  This is a way of diversifying our crops and our income from the woodlot.

To get the best production blueberries go through a production cycle.  In the late fall the vines are clipped completely to the ground level.  The following year the vines are in a state called a “sprout year”.  During this sprout year the vines will send up new shoots and not a single flower will develop.  During the next summer the vines will produce flowers and of course berries which are harvested in August in Prince Edward Island.  At the end of this season the vines are clipped and the two year cycle begin again.  The vines will slowly expand by sending out underground roots which will grow new shoots.  Eventually the entire field will be 100 % covered in blueberry vines.

These are double head harvesting machines.  There are five of these working in my field at one time.  Blueberry harvesting has become highly mechanized to get the job done in a hurry.

These are double head harvesting machines. There are five of these working in my field at one time. Blueberry harvesting has become highly mechanized to get the job done in a hurry.

All of our work is contracted out to a blueberry contractor who has the knowledge, expensive machinery and market connections to do the job.  I can concentrate on my tree work which is more of my speciality.  We divided our blueberry area into roughly two equal halves.  This way we have 50 % of our field in sprout year and 50 % in production year, so that we have a small crop of blueberries every year, instead of one large one every second year.

The land is very flat where we have our blueberry field.  It was once farmland that had been abandon in the early 1900’s and grew up in a stand of spruce trees.  As the stand became mature we harvested it in sections and planted most of it back to “high” forest, with spruce, pine, oak, etc. Some of the area was planed for Christmas trees and some destine to become naturally growing blueberries. Not a single vine was planed in our field!  The flat land is very conducive to machine harvesting.  Blueberries have become a significant crop in our region and without the aid of machinery we could never find enough people to harvest the entire crop.

These large containers are loaded on a truck and hauled to the processing facility for cleaning.   The large harvesting machines do an amazing job of harvesting the berries without harming them.

These large containers are loaded on a truck and hauled to the processing facility for cleaning. The large harvesting machines do an amazing job of harvesting the berries without harming them.

We keep a small patch each year for hand picking.  The berries will last on the vine for about a month.  So we are able to go and pick fresh good tasting berries at any time during this month.  We like to invite friends and family to enjoy these along with us so this little patch goes a long way towards a few families having some fresh blueberries and enough to freeze some for year round baking.

I hope this has shed some light on the production of wild blueberries for those who are not familiar with the process.

Until next time, keep safe and well.

***Click on any photo to get a larger image***

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