In my first hour working as an organic blueberry picker at Hare's Farm in Pemberton, I learn you don't actually pick so much as coax the precious fruit from the plant. This because it doesn't ripen all at once: in a large cluster — say, 30 or 40 berries — 20 might be ready, or maybe only two. Thus, you don't manhandle the bunch, but cradle its weight in your palm to keep from loosening the whole damn thing while you massage off the ripe ones, an act of consummate dexterity you must execute in seconds. How to know which berries are ready? They don't resist. And there's a final criterion: among non-resistors, you want blue not purple, so you better not be colour-blind. Blueberries, it can be said, are a finesse game.
Blueberries, it can also be said, are the epitome of low-hanging fruit. Though on occasion too low—as when you have to get on your knees and reach up into a bush to get to the good stuff. Otherwise you mostly walk glaucous rows with colander in hand, stooping, filling, then dumping each load into the large, flat, plastic lug pulled behind on a child's wagon, covered, of course, so as to stay the sun.
Beside me is Ralph, a veteran picker from Mount Currie who worked here last year. He doesn't say much but gets the job done with a big smile and a steady hand. Next row over are Preston and Meg, up from Oklahoma to climb in Squamish and make a few Craigslist-advertised bucks picking berries on the side. They're conscious, laid-back folk, enjoying themselves amidst scenery that offers antithesis to the flatlands back home; nevertheless, as welcome sun steams the latest rain from the field and begins to simmer us humans, picking's inevitable monotony already has them reminiscing over Tulsa's music scene, Mexican food, and Preston's mom's fried chicken. A newbie, I'm still gazing around, amazed at the setting and that in which I find myself immersed. An organic farm's main charm is in not being overly manicured or sanitized of nature like conventional agriculture; the plants in my hands offer up an entire ecosystem—slugs, ants, beetles, spiders — and are so heavy with berries they seem genuinely relieved when you remove a few. Despite what seems obscene abundance to my naïve eye, according to bossman blueberry rancher JD Hare, these bushes should eventually hit four times their current yield.
Pickers are paid by weight, the easiest calculus given how berries are sold. But ripe berries are both more abundant and easily gathered at the start of harvest. Preston, for instance, picked 95 lbs. in four hours a week ago, but was down to 45 lbs. in 6 hours yesterday. Given such a change, one imagines pieceworkers lining up for those first few critical days then disappearing as the yield subsides. That's why the price/pound for workers changes depending on how difficult picking is, a complex scaling formula that ensures Hare can pay five to 10 daily pickers a similar wage over the entire course of 10-week season. Then there are the sorters and packers — today four girls working in an open air shed to very loud music. Sorting equipment consists of a small hopper that empties onto a short conveyor belt. The number of under- and overripe berries — as well as those with damage from slugs, snails, bird pecks and even wasps — waxes and wanes with the weather. As the berries are sorted, stems and vegetation go on the ground, fully green ones are tossed, and B-graders end up in a separate flat for jam, etcetera. When there's enough product to work with, weighing and packing begins.
Having run through the morning's pickings, the sorters take a break while Hare steers his Volvo sedan into the field to pick up more. Each lug bears a picker's name on a piece of tape; as the weigh-in begins it's clear Preston's 20.5 pounds wins the round while my 10 lbs. scream Amateur! Labour costs are, of course, lower with conventional blueberries, where processors control prices from the top down. But farming methods that raise yields — monoculture and machine harvesting — are costly to the health of both land and humans, exacerbating problems like the invasive spotted-wing Drosophila that requires ever-more-toxic pesticides to control.
Though today's pickings will be in Sea-to-Sky stores and farm markets tomorrow — the very definition of fresh — these blueberries have a fantastic shelf life when refrigerated, and will be available for a while. Consumers will also stock up on 10 lb. boxes of frozen Hare Farm berries to use over winter, obviating the need to purchase inferior berries carbon-transported huge distances from places like Chile and New Zealand.
Personally, I'm all about fresh. The next day I amble into Creekside Market, cruising to the Hare Farm display that advertises "Local Land. Local Hands. Rich, Healthy Soil & Biodiversity. Super Food!" Here, buyers lift pint packages looking for the biggest, ripest, bluest berries. Me? I'm just looking for ones I recognize.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.