“The great thing about blueberries is you can pick them, you can freeze them, you know, without a whole lot of preparation, and just pour them on stuff,” says James Hancock, professor of Horticulture at Michigan State University.
If you haven’t guessed, Hancock has a passion for blueberries. In fact, he has spent the last 30 years cultivating the berry.
The blueberry industry in Michigan has been commercially growing berries since the 1900s. In 2011, the Michigan blueberry industry spanned 18,000 acres and yielded 72 million pounds of fruit valued at more than $118 million.
Hancock has developed three of the most widely planted blueberry varieties throughout his three decades at MSU. He breeds high bush blueberries: the Aurora, the Draper, and the Liberty blueberry.
Hancock said his blueberries are not genetically modified. Some are grown as far away as Chile and South Korea.
Nobody grows more blueberries in the U.S. than Michigan. In the past, many growers were exempt from wetland regulations. But the federal Environmental Protection Agency is making Michigan tighten its wetland regulations and blueberry production is a part of that.
The state will have to prove to the EPA that the proposed changes will follow federal laws, including the Clean Water Act.
This week I’m bringing you segments from my documentary, “Voices from the Fields,” a story of migrant workers in Michigan. It will air Wednesday on Stateside.
To hear the audio story, click here
Michigan is the nation’s largest producer of blueberries. But getting blueberries to our bowls means long tedious work for the people who pick them. And in some cases, workers complain that the pay is far too low.
When I was reporting for this documentary, I visited the Hamilton Family.
When I met up with them they were living in a broken down trailer behind an old flea market garage and a vacant parking lot cluttered with tall weeds in southwest Michigan.
Seven people were living in the trailer. One of them was Randy Hamilton Sr., the father of the family. They are white and are a minority in the fields. Hamtilon Sr. has been doing migrant work since he was in 8th grade. That's when he dropped out of school in order to make money picking in the fields.
“There’s no other jobs for us that you’ve got a high school diploma, and we don’t have it,” he says.
The Hamilton’s were out of work and out of money.
They quit their job picking blueberries in southwest Michigan. That’s because they couldn’t keep up with the picking demands in order to make minimum wage.
Michigan is the largest blueberry producing state in the country, and Van Buren County produces the most blueberries in Michigan.
“It’s natures perfect fruit, if you stop and think about it. There’s not any seeds that you have to deal with. You don’t have to peel it. You rinse it. You eat it. And not only do they taste good, they’re good for you,” Shelly Hartmann said.
Hartmann owns The Blueberry Store in downtown South Haven and a huge blueberry farm, True Blue Farms, in Grand Junction.
At The Blueberry Store you can get just about anything with blueberries in it. “Blueberries aren’t just for pancakes and muffins anymore,” Hartmann said.
I spot blueberry bath soaps, blueberry coffee, frozen and fresh blueberries, blueberries in brats and sausages, chocolate covered blueberries, blueberry candles, dog treats, mustard, popcorn, soda pop, butter, cookies, pancake mix, pie filling, jam, jelly and blueberry whoopee pies. Plus there’s dried blueberries, and even blueberry flavored beef jerky. The list goes on and on.
Hartman says this year’s crop has been affected by the dry conditions, but fared much better than other fruits grown in the region.
The National Blueberry Festival celebrating the region’s top fruit crop in South Haven is nearly 50 years old. Organizers typically expect around 40,000 people to come for the blueberry pancake breakfast, the live music, a blueberry parade and the very messy but very entertaining blueberry pie eating contest.
Here's a video the festival posted on youtube of one of the blueberry pie eating contests Friday afternoon.