I grew up in Holland, Michigan; blueberry farms could be found no further than a mile away no matter where you were in the city. I have driven through the fields on the way to school, wandered through the rows, and at the end of the summer, after all my patience throughout the year, reaped the reward of as many fat and juicy blueberries I could stomach.
What always amazes me is how the bushes transform from twigs in the ground during winter, to bountiful platters of fruit in the summer. When the tiny, expensive packages of blueberries show up in the grocery stores, I have to chuckle at how easy it is to be ignorant to our food production system. It’s a natural thing to take the food we see on the shelves for granted. Prices, brand, and marketing are really all we see. What we don’t see are the spring branches that have turned purple with blueberry juice, or the fog of pesticides in the morning, or even the owners, employers, and the conditions they work in. There is a hidden world to blueberry production.
Lets start exploring the world of blueberries beyond the shelf with the location and preparation of an empty field. Blueberries grow best in full sun, and well-drained soils, just as any other berry plant. However, in addition to this soil being high in sand concentrations (for proper drainage), it must have a low PH and high concentrations of organic matter (1). Such conditions are met in the temperate woodlands of Western Michigan, which explains why Holland has so many blueberry fields. After a location has been selected, the area must be cleared. Tilling the soil for at least one year prior to initial planting is recommended, specifically to increase the amount of organic matter (1). After this period of preparation, planting may occur and the plants really become demanding.
General maintenance of the blueberry plant (which is a bush about 4 meters tall) includes approximately 40 inches of water, 3 ounces of fertilizer, and varying amounts of pesticide annually per bush (2). In 2008, the United States produced nearly 200,000 metric tons of blueberries (3). If we trust the generally accepted assumption that one bush will produce 12 to 24 pounds of blueberries, we can calculate that there were approximately nine million to eighteen million blueberry bushes in the United States in 2008. Multiply these bushes by the previously mentioned 40 inches of water, 3 ounces of fertilizer, and pesticide application per bush and you come up with, well, a bunch of large numbers. The effects upon human health caused specifically by this demand for pesticides are enormous.
Pesticides are a major health concern of the 21st century. Pesticides eventually end up in the water cycle through leaching into ground water, following runoff into rivers, and various other ways of infiltrating the very water we depend upon for our survival, and the survival of almost all the life we see around us. After these chemical compounds have found their way into our water supplies, it’s no surprise they also travel into our bodies. The problem with this is that they are detrimental to our body’s health. There are 52 pesticide residues found by the USDA Pesticide Data Program on Blueberries (4), one of them being carbaryl.
Carbaryl is an insecticide commonly sold under the name Sevin. This risky chemical kills its targeted insect, which is malaria-carrying mosquitoes, but also kills animals that are good for the environment such as bees and crustaceans (5). Not surprisingly, Sevin is toxic to humans and is classified as a likely carcinogen by the EPA. It is illegal in a few countries including but not limited to the United Kingdom, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, and Angola (5). Nonetheless, it is a common insecticide in the US despite its suspected carcinogenic nature, not to mention containing suspected hormone disruptors, neurotoxins, and developmental or reproductive toxins. To top it all off, Sevin is found on 6.4% of all blueberries (4). And this is just ONE of the 52 pesticides found on blueberries. The risk of these side effects from this chemical is much higher for blueberry field workers.
A blueberry farm has many employees working many different jobs. Many only work when the fruit is ready to harvest, which was readily apparent to me from a very young age having lived so close to the industry. I could notice the whole city’s population swelling in the summer. Ottawa County, where Holland is located, is home to the most migrant workers in the State. More than six thousand workers come to work mainly in our blueberry fields as pickers until the season is over (6). The conditions are rough to put it lightly, and not only for the workers. Families who travel to Holland for the available jobs are having a tough time giving their children the education they deserve. Many of the children that travel with their parents to Holland start the school year in the public school system, however, after picking season, they leave with their families who just can’t support themselves in the blueberry offseason. Frequent switching schools and poor living conditions are not conducive to education, continuing their parents cycles of travelling where farms need help throughout the year, or often staying in Holland discontinuing their education for factory jobs. These things just aren’t apparent when seeing that blueberry package at your supermarket.
This is just a taste of the hidden world behind blueberry production, and much less of the world of food production. After paying eight dollars for a pint of blueberries, perhaps you will now realize what system your money is driving, maybe you’ll wash your blueberries an extra time, or maybe you’ll decide to plant one in your lawn for your very own bush in a few years. It’s important to know what you eat, where it comes from, and how if affects people’s lives; after all, what would we do without food?
1. Demchak, Kathleen. "Highbush Blueberry Production." Agriculture Alternatives. Penn State University, 2009. Web. 19 Sept. 2011.
2. Williamson, Jeff, and Paul Lyrene. "Blueberry Gardener's Guide." University of Florida IFAS Extension. University of Florida, n.d. Web. 19 Sept. 2011. <http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/mg359>.
3. USDA Economics, Statistics, and Market Information System. USDA, Mar. 2010. Web. 19 Sept. 2011. <http://usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/MannUsda/viewDocumentInfo.do?documentID=1765>.
4. "Blueberries." What's on my Food?. Pesticide Action Network, 2008. Web. 19 Sept. 2011. <http://www.whatsonmyfood.org/food.jsp?food=BB>.
5. "Carbaryl." Wikpedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Sept. 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbaryl >.
6. Daining, Peter. "By the Numbers Look at Agricultural Workers." Holland Sentinal. Holland Sentinal, 10 Apr. 2010. Web. 19 Sept. 2011. <http://www.hollandsentinel.com/feature/x1661778617/By-the-numbers-look-at-agricultural-laborers>.