Cultivated or Wild the Blueberry Has a Story to Tell

Episode 3 January 25, 2022 00:29:03
Cultivated or Wild the Blueberry Has a Story to Tell
Fruit Love Letters
Cultivated or Wild the Blueberry Has a Story to Tell

Show Notes

"Even so, I cannot move away from my ‘self’/perpetually residing in a blueberry cave."

Jessamine learns the history of both the cultivated blueberry and the native wild blueberry. For the former, she consults Kiyomi Locker, a historian for the Whitesbog Preservation Trust, birthplace of the cultivated blueberry. Through Kiyomi, Jessamine hears of Elizabeth White, the agricultural specialist who took the blueberry out of the woods and to consumers around the world. But just because most of us enjoy the cultivated blueberry doesn’t mean the wild one is gone. Brian Altvater and Holli Francis introduce Maine’s Passamaquoddy Wild Blueberry Company, the only Native-owned wild blueberry enterprise in the world. Clearly, there is space for both the wild and cultivated blueberry in our homes and our bellies.

Topics covered in this episode:

Learn more about this episode of Fruit Love Letters at, on IG and Twitter at @whetstoneradio, and YouTube at /WhetstoneRadio.

Guests: Kiyomi Locker of Whitesbog Preservation Trust, Brian Altvater & Holli Francis of Passamaquoddy Wild Blueberry Company

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Episode Transcript

Speaker 0 00:00:00 Hey everyone. I'm Jesse Sparks host of the new podcast. The one recipe from the team behind the splinted table. This pod is all about that one recipe that you lean on. The one you share with friends, the one you make, when you need a little love. And the one, you know, will work every single time. Every week. I talk with chefs and gifted cooks from all over the world about their one and the story behind it. We're here to help you build your kitchen library. One dish at a time, follow the one recipe, wherever you get your podcast. Speaker 1 00:00:29 Have you ever wondered why rotisserie chicken is so cheap or whether eating a plant based burger can really help fight climate change? Or how about what labels to look for? To know which food is the healthiest or the best for the environment. If those questions intrigue, you try the new podcast. What you're eating from food They connect the story behind your food, to what you eat every day. What you're eating helps you understand how food gets to your plate to see the full impact of the food system on animals, planet, and people from conversations with farmers and chefs, to discussions with policy experts on the barriers to sustainability food prints, new podcast covers everything from the why to the how join host Jerusha clipper director of food, every other week for new episodes and more answers to the question you have about what you're eating, listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcast or at food you're eating. Speaker 2 00:01:38 A neighbor has a blueberry farm down the street from the house. I have lived in most of my life though. I think farm might be a stretch with no farm name. It's more of a free farm situation. Pick what you like and be sure to eat a lot along the way yet behind their modest house, late acres of blueberries, rose upon roses bushes, 10 feet tall, that drape heavy with purple fruit, pulling the branches down, making blueberry caves. I have run through these fruit caves as a child hidden amongst them on dates. And with lovers picked handfuls with a newborn strapped my chest intensely collected bucket fulls for my budding business, and simply bypass the bucket. Handing Mrs. Ruth a few dollars on my way out as I just came for a snack with solace. Fruit is officially defined as the sweet and fleshy product of a plant. As the permanence of self is ironically built on these fleeting sweet and fleshy parts of life. One blueberry at a time in a week, just as the heaviness of right blueberries arc the branches. I will move away from this home and street forever, even. So I cannot move away from myself, perpetually residing in a blueberry cave. I love you. Speaker 2 00:03:20 I'm Jess star. You are listening to fruit. Love letters. Food for me is a way to express love. I'm a chef in Atlanta and I fold my feelings into the meals I cook for my family, my friends, even strangers. It can be hard for me to say, I love you, but you will know it when I serve you a forage Chan mushroom omelet with wild lakes. But if I peel you an apple slice you a perim, pick you a Mulberry with my stained fingers. Then we'll both know it's really serious fruit of course have long been considered symbols of love, even aphrodisiacs on this show, I'm exploring our love of fruit and what it says about us people on this episode, the blueberry, The blueberry, as we know it omnipresent in grocery store. Clamshells in pies and in grubby little fingers is a relatively recent phenomenon. It was bred from wild blueberries about a century ago, but that doesn't mean the wild blueberry is gone. We'll take you to a wild blueberry operation in Maine run by the PAMA Kati tribe. But first I want to introduce you to Kiyomi locker. Speaker 4 00:04:54 My name is Kiyomi locker and I'm the lead archivist for white SPAG preservation dress located in Browns mills, New Jersey. And basically I'm in charge of maintaining and caring for all of our collections. Speaker 2 00:05:07 White SPAG was a cranberry growing farm started by James a Fenwick in the mid 18 hundreds and later expanded by his son-in-law Joseph J. White today. The farm it's accompanying village and the surrounding land is a managed historic site. Speaker 4 00:05:25 We have a little bit of everything. Really. We are actually one of the last places, public places in the state of New Jersey to view cranberry harvest. So that's really exciting. We have cranberry bogs here that have been harvested since 1857. When our farms started, we have a village that has been mostly, our village has been this way since 1920s, and we have 30 buildings, including residents who live in some of our buildings as full-time tenants. And we are located on 3000 acres of preserve New Jersey Pinelands. And we also are the first blueberry farm in human history. And we have some of those original blueberry pants from 1914, Speaker 2 00:06:13 The first blueberry farm ever Kia MEA ever Kiyomi says it was started by Joseph White's daughter. A woman named Elizabeth White. Speaker 4 00:06:22 Elizabeth was born in 1871. So we just celebrated her 150th birthday. And from the beginning, she was the one really out of all of her sisters to take the most interest in the farm. She would come with her dad to the farm before they built their homes here to work with him and to really take an interest in it. She loved it. She dedicated her life to white bog. Speaker 2 00:06:52 Joseph farmed cranberries at whites bug. Speaker 4 00:06:56 So cranberries are harvested around late September, October. And so in Elizabeth's day, it even went into November because they were hand picking, but that's a whole nother ballgame. So she knew that they needed something in between harvest seasons. So blueberry harvest is in June and July. So it's like that perfect midway point in their harvest year. So she went to her father after reading an article that Frederick Colville wrote about growing, taking wild blueberries and trying to grow them into a commercial crop. And she had asked her dad, if she could write him a letter and they gave Dr. Frederick Cova the space and the tools that he needed to start the research here with Elizabeth Speaker 2 00:07:42 While blueberries grew all around the farm. And that's where Elizabeth and Frederick turned. Speaker 4 00:07:48 So how they started it was they hired local residents. And so we are in the New Jersey pine Barron. So a local resident is nicknamed a Piney. So we always say they hired local Pines to go out into the woods and find them wild blueberries, wild blueberry bushes. And they were all very different from one another, no two wild blueberry bushes were the same. They were all different varieties. So they would find the plant. And if they could find a plant that produced berries the size of the quarter, they paid them around $20 a plant, which I mean, this is the early 19 hundreds. So we're talking lots and lots of money to them. Anyway, Speaker 2 00:08:32 Elizabeth would catalog each Bush. She received and name them each after the pine who brought it to her. Speaker 4 00:08:40 One of the best varieties that they found is called a ruble. And that was found by a man named Rube bleak. And she didn't wanna the name, the blueberry Bush ale Bush because of the onion. And she didn't think Rube was a good enough name. So she named it the Rubal. So we have a Grover. I believe there's a Warren and there's all different types. We even have an Elizabeth blueberry, which is mostly only farmed here at WEBO and memory of Elizabeth Speaker 2 00:09:07 Elizabeth and Frederick Coville would then take these different bushes and cross breed them to see what kinds of blueberries they could come up with. Speaker 4 00:09:18 They would take cuttings and we have her original test books where she would say, oh, we took a Grover and a ruble. And we crossbred them and cross pollinated them to create H two. And that would be the plant. And so they would go from there and we have our triangle field here at our farm is actually a direct correlation to this book. So we can go into our field, look at that field and look at the row that it's in and say, okay, this one is a cross breed of a Grover and a Rubal. This one is this one. And this one is that one. So they really were putting in a ton of work. Speaker 2 00:10:00 Frederick would often start the plants sometimes at the us department of agriculture labs in Washington, DC, where he worked, Speaker 4 00:10:08 Elizabeth is the one seeing them to fruition and full growth, and then to bury producing stages. So she really was doing majority of the legwork here at the farm. So it was kind of almost a back and forth. They would start the plants, bring them back, plant them because it actually works out perfectly. The pine bears is acidic soil and blueberries. Love, love, love acidic Sandy soil. And that's another reason why cranberries and blueberries were such a great crop to do together because they both need the same environment. So they would come, they would plant them here. And if she did not like the plant, if it wasn't producing the way that she wanted to, she was ruthless. Like she would type up her notes and then we would look, and then there would be a handwritten note. Like she would say bees aren't large enough. And it would be like June, 1916. And then you'll see a note later, August, 1916, discarded, like she did not care. She knew what she wanted. She knew how she wanted her crop to look. And she did everything that she could to make sure that the berries coming outta white SPAG were perfect. Speaker 2 00:11:19 She would literally measure this circumference of berries to make sure the bushes were producing bigger berries, berries to her satisfaction. And with time she developed many different varieties. She started planting the successful varieties at white SPAG. Her first harvest was in 1914, but she also worked to get other growers interested in blueberries, spreading her cultivated blueberry little by little today, nearly 700 million pounds of blueberries are grown each year. Speaker 4 00:11:55 People don't realize that there are so many different varieties of blueberries. And when you purchase blueberries in your produce section at the grocery store, those are not all one variety of blueberries in that container. They're all different varieties. That's why you see some of them that are smaller and they're a little bit sour. And then you see the bigger ones and they're sweet. Those are two different varieties. It's not commercially productive to separate them. Oh, you're gonna buy a Raz blueberry. And today you're gonna buy the silver dollar blueberry. So they just package them all together. Speaker 2 00:12:33 So why do growers have multiple varieties? I mean, it sounds like a great idea and adds variety, but is there a growing reason to have varieties? Speaker 4 00:12:45 Actually there are early mid and late varieties. So it extends the season to have multiple varieties. Speaker 2 00:12:52 Will you go through a little bit of some different blueberries and what they taste like? Speaker 4 00:12:57 We'll start with the Elizabeth blueberry. We're one of the only places to grow it. Elizabeth blueberries are the sweetest, blueberries and biggest blueberries I've ever had. Speaker 2 00:13:08 Perfect. Speaker 4 00:13:08 The best. Yes. They're the best obviously named appropriately. And they don't sell them in the store because they're very fragile. So they have a really short shelf life. So they're not good for commercial production really. So the Elizabeth blueberries are the best. The Rubal is kind of when you think of like a basic blueberry flavor, that's really what the Rubal is. It's mid-sized Speaker 2 00:13:35 The Rubal is named after Rubal leak. One of the Pines. Speaker 4 00:13:40 Yes. One of the Pines who found the original plant and she loved the plant so much that they really didn't cross breed the Rubal all that much because they thought it was the peak plant. So really if you're having a Rubal, it's most likely it could be somewhat genetically altered, but most likely it's not Speaker 2 00:13:59 Without Elizabeth and CO's work. Where would the blueberry be today? Speaker 4 00:14:07 I'm not quite sure there could be someone who would've taken up the work. I mean, we'll never really know, but we honestly say that without Elizabeth, there would be no blueberries because she's really the woman that was the driving force behind it. And now blueberries are in everything and they're grown all over the world and everybody loves blueberries. And to me, I think the saddest part of that is that people don't know Elizabeth White's contribution. I won't lie. I live 15 minutes from white SPAG and prior to working here, I had never even heard of Elizabeth White. And I think that's really a disservice to her contributions. I think to human history. I mean, everybody loves blueberries, especially to food history. It's unfortunate that no one really knows who she is. She was a pioneer, even outside of blueberries, she felt very passionately about human rights. Speaker 2 00:15:13 For example, she provided relatively better housing for her workers in comparison to other farms and encouraged neighboring operations to do the same as part of that mission. She served on president Herbert Hoover's migrant farm workers, housing committee. She had an infirmary to treat workers on site and she would bring in specialty foods for her, primarily Italian labor force, still white SPAG did rely on child labor. Speaker 4 00:15:42 She felt very strongly that when people looked at white SPAG and thought, oh my God, you use children. Well, white SPAG was one of the only farms in our area to provide a school and a school teacher full time for kids who were working here. A lot of the kids who worked here they've told us that they've lived very happy lives here. My grandfather actually picked blueberries. My aunt picked blueberries here as well, and she knew Ms. Elizabeth White. So that's always like a fun connection to my role here. My aunt was a teenager when she worked here and when she knew Elizabeth and she said that Elizabeth was very gentle and kind but firm. So when Elizabeth was around, you knew who was boss and you knew that she's watching you, and if you're not doing what you're supposed to do, she will tell you she was always in the field with the pickers that they hired. Speaker 2 00:16:36 It sounds like every moment of her life was dedicated. Mostly to blueberries. I understand it said cranberry bug as well, but there was so much work on blueberries. It just sounds like that's all she could think and do for her whole life really. Was it till the end or did she relax a little bit? Speaker 4 00:16:56 She did not relax at all prior to 1914. So that's really when they get their first profitable. Well, their first crop prior to that, she did have a lot to do with the cranberry industry. She was actually the first president of the American cranberry growers association. So the first female president, which at that time is completely unheard of. She didn't relax. I think in anything that she did, she loved pine Barron's native plants because we have a lot of species of plants that don't exist anywhere else in the world. And she would actually go on journeys around south Jersey to find rare plants and she would bring them back to her home. And she created her own pine Barron's botanical garden, which is the only one to exist in the world. Since our plants are rare here in the 1940s, she has a stroke and it really immobilized her, but she did not care. Instead she had an elevator put into her home so she could get to all three levels of her house and keep working. That's just the type of woman that she was Upon. Her passing. We've been told a story that her nephews threw away. Many of her personal belongings and papers, and that her intern at the time actually went dumpster diving and saved many of her papers. And some of like the original blueberry work, she believed that someone would start something in memory of Elizabeth. Speaker 2 00:18:33 So you guys got some of those dumpster dived. Yes <laugh> thank goodness. Speaker 4 00:18:38 I know her name was June veil and she's actually a very prominent horticulturist in our area, especially in Philadelphia, actually, she saved Elizabeth's original bedroom furniture. Those three pieces are the only original pieces of the home that we have. So thank goodness for June Vale. Yes. Speaker 2 00:18:59 I hope the next time you buy a clam shell of blueberries at your local grocery store, you think of Elizabeth White and all the work she did to get those blueberries to you. And by the way, those very first bushes she planted at white SPAG. Speaker 4 00:19:17 Those blueberry plants are actually still producing fruit today over a hundred years later, Speaker 2 00:19:23 If you ever find yourself in the pine Barrens of New Jersey in the summertime, you can even stop by white SPAG and pick a few of those berries to try The commercialized. Cultivated. Blueberry is kind of an amazing thing, but not everyone sold on it. Some people prefer the wild blueberry. Speaker 5 00:19:50 So wild blueberries are very different from cultivated blueberries. Speaker 2 00:19:55 This is Holly Francis. She works for the Paso Makati wild blueberry company. It's a company owned by the tribal governments of the PAMA Kati people in Maine, near the Canadian water. I spoke to her along with Brian Alfa. He's the chairman of the company Speaker 6 00:20:13 When I was a kid and he used RA blueberries. My mouth would be all blue at the end of the day. It's like, once you start eating a couple, it's awful hard to stop. There's just a distinct taste about 'em that's unlike anything else you can ever eat. It's hard to explain what they taste like, but I guarantee you, if you grab one of those cultivated ones and then grab some of the main wild blueberries, there's a world a difference, and you'll never go back to the cultivated ones. Speaker 5 00:20:48 So wild blueberries have two times the antioxidant concentration compared to those cultivated blueberries. And they also have two times the Anin, which they have antibi anti-cancer benefits to them. It's a super fruit that's grown in the wild. The wild blueberries themselves are also smaller and a little sweeter than their cultivated cousin, Speaker 2 00:21:12 Rather than grow on a farm in neat little rows, like the cultivated blueberry, the Pasqua blueberries grow on barons. Speaker 5 00:21:21 Wild blueberries started growing when the glaciers receded from Northern Maine and parts of Canada, about 10,000 years ago. And so these were called barons. It's just a large area with no trees and these different clones growing while blueberries are actually a series of root systems under the ground called rise zones. And each system of roots is called a clone. And so if you actually do a bird's eye view of the wild blueberry bear, and you'll see different clones, they have different colors, different Heights, different blooms. And within one Bearen, you'll actually have a different flavor profile from one clone to the next and a different coloring of the berries. So the crop itself is very cool. It's very different from most crops that you typically see. They're beautiful. You know, you're driving on the way up to the bile blueberry land up there. And the scenery suddenly changes. You go from the state of Maine. You think of trees, and then you go to this. It's truly a Baron with these wild blueberries growing and in the fall, these wild blueberry barons are bright red with the way the plants change in the falls. They're absolutely gorgeous. Speaker 2 00:22:33 It's a very particular striking landscape. And Brian says his people have been on this land, eating these blueberries for a very, very long time. Speaker 6 00:22:45 Well, there's evidence that we've been here for at least 13,000 years. And so these have always been our homelands. So I think that the blueberries were always a staple of the Paal parties, Speaker 2 00:23:00 But of course there was a problem. Speaker 6 00:23:03 This region here, the Paal party, a region. If you look at maps, depending on when you look at maps, sometimes the English would claim where we live and sometimes the French and it's always been a gray area. And so we have been here for at least 13,000 years and where we live and the places that we go became smaller and smaller. And then we basically got confined to a few small Indian communities, you know, reservations Speaker 2 00:23:39 Then in the 1970s in a complicated and far reaching lawsuit in which the Pasqua sought everything from federal recognition of the tribe to better services, the Pasqua demanded their lands back and they won the resulting settlement called the main Indian claim. Settlement act included a payout for the tribe. Speaker 6 00:24:02 After the Indian claim settlement act, we won the settlement and we got a fair amount of money. And as a result of that, we purchased quite a bit of land for the tribe and we purchased some businesses. I'm glad to say that the past 40 while blueberry company, what we know currently is the longest and by far the most successful company that the tribe has had. And so it was a result of the federal recognition and went in a lawsuit and taken those millions and invested in, into businesses. Speaker 2 00:24:40 It's a business rooted in the tribes, traditional food ways, the blueberries, and for a long time, it maintained a sense of community, particularly during harvest that's when Pasqua families would gather on the barons to pick the berries. Speaker 6 00:24:57 I know that my dad used to go to different places and spend weeks harvest and B some fur balls to make Christmas res and stuff. And a lot of times they'd stay in a camp somewhere and somebody would be designated to do the cooking and stuff like that. And sometimes they'd be away from home for weeks and the same thing with blueberries harvest. And it's changed a lot when I was a kid, a lot of us stayed in either a camp or tent or something like that. And you know, now we've got running water and electricity and cook camps and showers and commodes and all this other stuff, but you still have that feeling that it's a family and that you all look out for each other and you live together and you help each other out. So it is changing. And it's very sad that basically machinery taken the place of people that would do that by hand. But if we didn' make some of those changes, we wouldn't be able to compete and stay in business. Speaker 2 00:25:59 Brian has been one of the people pushing for more efficient harvesting methods. Speaker 6 00:26:05 I'm gonna walk you through. What's happened just since I've been board president and I've only been board president since oh nine. So anyway, when I first got on, there was virtually no mechanical harvesting and we averaged about probably 3 million pounds, uh, harvest blueberries a year. We probably close to double in that. Now there's advantages to mechanical harvesting. And the downside to that is it puts people out of work, but because we've doubled our crop, there are some years we wouldn't have been able to get the crop in if we didn't have mechanical harvesting. And so we just kind of increased it each year. And the other thing is it costs at least double to harvest a blueberry per pound, with hand making as opposed to mechanical harvesting. And so that's the other thing. And we'd love to keep the way things were in the past. But the thing with that is we need to stay in business and we need to realize a profit. Speaker 2 00:27:11 Usually the company sends all of its blueberries to a processor to be frozen and distributed under different brands. In other words, if you buy frozen blueberries, there might be no indication. You're eating a PAMA qu Berry, but this year for the first time, they kept 20% of the crop. Holly. Again, Speaker 5 00:27:32 This 20% was hand raped. And so you have areas of the barons that are very hilly and you can't put a mechanical harvester on those. So there's always going to be areas that you have to hand rake. And it's actually now this double handle metal, probably three feet long rake. That's very labor intensive. You're bending over and literally scooping these berries with this rake and dumping them into buckets. We in particular employ tribal members year round and seasonal. And they're not just past Makati. We employ a lot of tribal members from other Wabanaki tribes. Speaker 2 00:28:08 Holly says the company is marketing those blueberries themselves and Brian, well, he says he still likes to go pick his own blueberries too. Speaker 6 00:28:18 I myself go up there every year and pick, and I don't mean with a RA with my fingers. And I pick enough berries for the family and stuff is a lot of fun. Speaker 2 00:28:27 What's your favorite way to eat blueberries? Speaker 6 00:28:31 I'd have to say it's a pie. I mean, you can't beat a good blueberry pie. I remember when my grandmother used to make pies for us kids, and there was nothing like that. Speaker 2 00:28:48 Thank you to our guests, Brian ator, Holly Francis, and Kiyomi locker. You can subscribe to fruit love letters anywhere you get your podcasts, and we'll be back next week. With more love letters to fruit, Fruit love letters is part of what stone radio collective. Thank you to the fruit love letters, team producer, Joof audio editor, Bethany sands researcher, Carolyn Crosby, and intern indigo Clarkson. I'd also like to thank Wetstone founder, Steven Satterfield, Wetstone radio collective executive producer, Celine Glaser sound, engine glacier sound engineer, max, Coldwell check, associate producer, Quintin, Lebo, and sound intern, Simon lavender I'm Justin star. Thanks for listening to fruit of letters. You can learn more about this [email protected] at Instagram and Twitter at Wetstone radio and subscribe to our YouTube channel Westone radio collective. For more podcast, video content, you can learn more about all things [email protected]

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