TravelTraveler Magazine

Blueberry Fields Forever

Call it my double life. Each spring I tuck my passport away and turn into a blueberry farmer, tending the crop on a 40-acre organic farm in Maine.

Few of my white-collar colleagues know about this side of my life; even fewer of my fellow farmers have an inkling of my world travels, although at a recent farmers’ meeting, one old-timer noted, “For a blueberry farmer, you sure do come and go a lot.” These two realities felt worlds apart—until now.

In recent years, a steady stream of visitors has been showing up at the farm: A couple from England with their two sons, a Russian grandmother and her daughter, a family from India, French newlyweds, a band of Brazilian backpackers.

And more keep coming, signaling a travel movement that is related to the current farm-to-table food fad, but encompasses more.

These travelers are driven by something deeper, seeking to connect with a place in a more meaningful, experiential way. They spend a day, sometimes several, immersing themselves in our way of life, fascinated by the ecosystem that surrounds Maine’s native blueberries, from the wild bees that pollinate the flowers to the black bears that forage at night to the kestrels that swoop into the fields by day to snatch a wayward mouse nibbling at the fruit.

This role reversal was strange at first. Instead of being the curious visitor, I was the attraction, approached by travelers keen to tap into my life as a villager and eager for an authentic experience. But embracing these inquisitive wanderers helps keep our farm going. As my 74-year-old neighbor, Elliot Coleman, puts it, “We’ve never considered ourselves a tourist attraction, but we could not survive without the people who travel here to see what we do and buy what we grow, even offering to help with the chores.”

Sure, visitors have flocked to agricultural outposts before, from Tuscany to Napa, but the travelers I’m seeing are more purpose driven—happy warriors fighting for a cause bigger than the farms they visit. As with the global ecotourism movement that has helped protect nature and save endangered species, the farm tourism movement today may help revive small family farms around the world.

My own farm is a case in point. In the 1980s, the Herrick family, who had been farming here for generations, could no longer sustain their way of life. Like thousands of other small farmers, they put their land up for sale. I borrowed $5,000 for a down payment for two of their blueberry fields, and asked that they teach me to farm the way their forebears did—without pesticides and herbicides.

There is a satisfying, natural cycle. In the fall, I cover the fields—Maine’s indigenous low-bush blueberry plants stand only 6 inches tall when fully grown—in a thick blanket of golden straw. When spring arrives, family and friends come together and we set the fields on fire—a technique originally taught to settlers by Native Americans, who have harvested these berries for centuries. After burning, the plants sprout thick foliage, but no fruit. The following summer, the same plants flower exuberantly, tripling, even quadrupling the yield.

So we harvest each field every other year, with one always bearing fruit. By August, ripening plants turn entire landscapes into striking carpets of blue (the setting for Robert McCloskey’s 1948 classic children’s book, Blueberries for Sal).

We don’t pick the berries; we “rake” them—another local tradition. Using a tool that looks like a steel comb with a handle, we scoop up the berries, pouring them into flat boxes. Then we blow away any chaff by emptying the boxes in front of a strong fan. The little blue gems that remain are packaged by hand for sale.

Harvesting blueberries this way is not a get-rich-quick scheme, for sure, and until summer vacationers and world travelers started showing up, we, like so many small farmers, were fighting an uphill struggle to make it work. But these visitors don’t just buy our blueberries; they gather around the processing table—sorting, packaging, and learning.

It is more than just a local phenomenon. In Tanabe, Japan, villagers growing heirloom oranges hope to turn back the tide of rural-to-urban migration that threatens their thousand-year-old culture by welcoming travelers. Maya communities in Belize have found new ways to revitalize traditional cacao farming, and visitors learn about the origins of chocolate. And in Montenegro, with its own blueberry heritage, travelers and locals gather in the Prokletije Mountains for the Plav Blueberry Festival, which helps sustain the rural economy.

Last September, more than 50,000 visitors from around the world attended the Common Ground Country Fair near the town of Unity, a two-hour drive on meandering roads from my farm. The annual celebration includes sharing local folklore, sampling favorite dishes, soaking up gardening techniques, and watching demonstrations from plowing a field with horses to building a backyard greenhouse. There are evenings of live music and dancing (save the dates: September 20-22). This new wave of back-to-the-land explorers helps small farms make the leap from a thing of the past into a possibility for the future—good news for a traveling farmer like me.

Costas Christ is Editor at Large at National Geographic Traveler, where his column, “Tales From The Frontier” (of which this is one), appears regularly.