By Matt Flaherty
Maine’s food industry is booming, but do we know how our food is produced, and who is preparing it?
When we think of our food, we think of the lobster that is hauled up in traps along the coastline. We are reminded of the rolling wild blueberry barrens Down East that turn red in the fall. We beam with pride about our potatoes up north in the County and those schools’ annual potato harvest break in mid-fall.
We are a proud state, and we should be, but there is more to our food industry than meets the eye. We create an image in our minds of a prototypical “Mainer.” This Mainer is the fisherman who hauls in his catch in the early morning. This Mainer is the farmer who tends to his blueberry barrens and potato fields. This Mainer started that restaurant on Commercial Street in Portland through hard work and pulling himself up by the bootstraps.
We believe in an image of a strong, gray-bearded middle aged white man. This man works hard to make sure he provides for himself, his family and his community. This image we have in our minds is certainly true of many people in Maine’s food industry, but there are other faces, old and new, that are hardworking Mainers.
What does it mean to be a hard worker in Maine:
Let’s start with the old faces that are often forgotten about. Working with Maine’s most cherished agricultural crop, the wild blueberry, is not something for the faint of heart. The wild blueberry is grown in low bushes that are no higher than 10 inches off the ground. In order to harvest this crop, workers need to use a specialized rake tool and bend over for the whole day in the heat of the August sun. Who are these workers?
Huge numbers of Native Americans migrate every year from within Maine and Canada to rake these wild blueberries. Within Maine, they predominantly come from Indian Township and Pleasant Point, two of Maine’s four Native American reservations. Within Canada, they come from Eskasoni, a Native American reservation located in Nova Scotia.
Every year, they travel to the blueberry barrens and stay in cabins surrounded by the fruit. This migration has been happening for centuries, long before this land was called Maine or owned by the United States. Unfortunately, the Native American labor is left out of the public discussion when it comes to the wild blueberry.
In every supermarket in Maine, you will see Wyman’s bags of frozen wild blueberries. The people who rake the blueberries for this iconic Maine brand are mostly of Hispanic descent.
Some of these migrant workers move straight from Mexico or Central America to rake blueberries in Deblois for the month of August. Most of them follow the East Coast migrant stream every year. They start in southern states like Florida and Texas, move north to a state like New Jersey and end their year in Maine raking blueberries. There are workers who bring their families and workers who come alone to provide for their families back home.
The story of the stereotypical migrant worker in the United States is similar to that journey. They move from state to state following different harvests. These populations are more visible in states like California, Texas and Florida, though they are often overlooked there. In Maine, the migrant-worker population is smaller and even more overlooked.
The lobster industry is a little more complicated. In order to have lobster traps, a person needs to have a permit, and these permits are extremely difficult to receive. It is not uncommon to be on a waiting list for at least five years. Once you have the permit, there is a lot of equipment that a person needs to have. A boat, traps, buoys, rope and other equipment make this an expensive venture.
Because of the difficulty in entering the lobster industry, hauling traps and catching lobster is reserved to Mainers who have money and have been established in the state for years. This is not the end of the story, though. What happens after the lobster is caught?
There needs to be somebody who cleans, weighs and shucks the lobsters to get them ready to sell. In many places on the Maine coast, especially greater Portland and Down East, this work is reserved for immigrant labor.
Lobster processing is not easy work, either. When you first walk into these facilities, the smell of fish is overwhelming. Workers spend their entire shifts on their feet, cleaning, weighing and shucking lobster. Many of the people doing this work are immigrants from all over the world. There are undocumented immigrants from Latin America, refugees from countries in Africa and immigrants from Asia as well.
The problem is, though, that nobody knows who is doing this work, never mind the work conditions that the people face. Most employers make it tough for any social service agency to speak to their workers; many of their employees are victims of wage theft and other crimes. Some may not speak English and reading a paycheck can be hard. Or they do speak English, but don’t have the resources and knowledge to speak up against their boss. They could come from a country and place where a minimum wage is not enforced, and may think it is the same here. Or, they are in debt with somebody and half their paycheck goes to someone else to start with.
Let’s say they don’t make a minimum wage. This obviously affects other parts of their life. For example, their employer typically does not provide a health care plan. Receiving basic medical services becomes something that is out of the question. Small health issues become big problems for people like these when they are not taken care of.
Food is such a big part of our lives and a huge part of Maine’s culture. People all over the world know Maine for our lobsters and our blueberries, but there is more to the story than what is being told. This is common in the food industry. Our farmworkers and fishermen are too often overlooked. The next time you go to pick up some seafood or produce, take a minute to think about where it is coming from.