If you’re like us, you’re probably curious about how harvest season looks for wild blueberry producers. When farmers are harvesting corn, wheat, oats or canola, they use combines with specific headers (and settings) for each type of crop. Apple pickers are often hired for harvest to hand pick apples, careful to not bruise them, and then they are sorted by shape, size and quality. Other berries are harvested by shaking the branches and using a hand held rake for the stragglers, allowing the fruit to drop to the ground which is covered with a tarp.
How are Canadian Wild Blueberries Harvested?
While the wild blueberry used to be picked by hand or by using a small, hand-held rake, harvest has significantly changed for many producers over the last couple of decades. 90-95% of growers now use a mechanical harvester which is mounted to a tractor. These harvesters have rotating rakes that pull the berries from the branches, drop them onto a belt, and then drops them into large totes.
Fact: Each tote can hold around 300 pounds of berries
Approximately only 1-2% of wild blueberry producers still use the more traditional method of hand-raking the wild blueberries off of the brush. There are also smaller mechanical harvesters, as well. These can be pushed, or have push rakes that are mounted onto smaller machines, and are often used on smaller farms.
What Happens after They Are Picked?
Depending on the size of operation, there are different ways that producers go about handling their produce for Individual Quick Freezing (IQF). Most producers ensure that once the totes have been filled, they are loaded onto a flatbed trailer and brought to a receiving station. Here, they are weighed and loaded into a transport truck. These trucks will bring the berries to the processing plant, where they go through a series of events to prepare them for the individual quick freezing process. Note: some producers skip the flatbed trailer all together and load their berries directly into the transport truck for the delivery to the processing station.
Once the berries arrive at the processing plant, they are cleaned in by going through a blower and several different water baths. To ensure quality control, they are sorted by using lasers, as well as other techniques. Once the berries have been sorted and cleaned, each and every wild blueberry is individually quick frozen. There are several different processes that the berries will then go through, depending on the processing plant, what the berries are being used for, and where they are going. In the end, the berries are then packaged and prepared to ship. For berries that are sold in the freezer section in your grocery store, most of the berries are packaged into 600 gram and 2 kilogram bags or containers. The vast majority of Canadian wild blueberries, however, are exported out of the country!
Did you know that Japan uses wild blueberries primarily in yogurts and jams, while Germany will use Canadian wild blueberries most often in glass jars!
What about Fresh Wild Blueberries?
Because fresh wild blueberries do not have a long shelf life, they are most often sold as frozen berries. But if you’re in an area during wild blueberry harvest, and you happen to get your hands on some of those small blue gems, we highly recommend doing so! The process of harvest-to-table of fresh wild blueberries is a little different.
Once the berries are picked, they are then brought back to the shop on the local farm. They go through a similar process as their frozen counterparts, with a giant fan blowing out the debris. Then they go over a sizing belt which helps sort the berries by size and ripeness, a tilter belt that removes clusters, and then over a picking belt where workers can sort through the fruit to pull the bad ones out (note: some operations also have started using lasers to help with this sorting process). Boxes are then packed in several sizes, including pint, 5lb and 10lbs. You can find these blueberries fresh at farm markets, some local grocery stores, or roadside stands. The farms that have their own processors will often also freeze their berries, and sell them to consumers well after the harvest is over!
We are so thankful for those who manage and harvest Canadian wild blueberries! We love those tangy little berries that are unique to our part of the world, and how versatile they are. It’s wonderful being able to use them in all types of food, throughout the year (thanks to IQF), and even other things like DIY paint and soap.