In Down East Maine, native blueberries have sustained families for generations.
Growing up in Columbia Falls, some of Adam West’s earliest memories revolve around blueberries. He raked the tiny fruit when he was just 5. His dad, grandfather, and great-grandfather worked at Wyman’s wild blueberry processing plant in Cherryfield. In high school and college, he worked there too, stacking boxes, operating a forklift, and transporting freshly raked berries from the field to the plant for freezing. After getting a degree in information technology, West returned to the barrens.
“My family bleeds blue,” says West, manufacturing manager for the Milbridge-based company.
In Down East Maine, native blueberries have sustained families for generations. They’re an integral part of the region’s cultural fabric and its economy —the industry generates $250 million annually for the state and provides about 2,000 seasonal and year-round jobs. Wyman’s, for example, employs a staff of 185 in Maine, which grows to 500 during harvest.
Maine has 485 wild blueberry farms, most smaller than 50 acres. Farming wild blueberries isn’t an easy living, given the weather, competition from highbush blueberries, and other factors, but growers, processors, and rakers take pride in stewarding the landscape so it supports families for generations to come.
“It’s tradition, sure, but I also really enjoy it,” grower John Gaddis says. The industry is very much a family affair — his grandfather began tending wild blueberries in 1910, and his parents started selling to Hollis Wyman in the 1960s. Hollis was the second generation to run his family’s company, and a fourth generation is at the helm today.
Even as the industry has evolved, with mechanized raking now common, raking by hand remains a cherished tradition for some, like many Mi’kmaq and Maliseet families who travel from Canada for the harvest.
“It’s not just about earning money — it’s about adults sharing with children and grandchildren an experience they remember doing with their grandparents,” says Donald Soctomah, historic preservation office director for the Passamaquoddy Tribe, which owns more than 4,000 acres of berries near Columbia Falls and sells to Wyman’s. “Whenever you can work on the land and receive something from it, it is considered a gift.”