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McCallum: Blueberry Wars

08/17/10 7:55AM By Mary McCallum
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(HOST) This time of year Vermont's vegetable gardens and berry patches are in full production.  Commentator Mary McCallum has watched her own berry patch undergo a state of siege this summer, with disappointing results.            

(MCCALLUM)  At the height of summer I recall the long hot summers of childhood, when sitting under a tree reading a book or picking berries filled the blissfully unstructured time.  When I was a kid on rural Long Island the woods were full of low growing wild berry bushes.  We called them huckleberries. Because of their small size, the eggplant colored berries took time and patience to pick.  

Today's blueberries available year round in supermarkets are enormous by comparison.  Grown commercially and harvested by machine, they are the distant rich relatives of the humble huckleberry.

One summer my father was out of work. Each week my mother took a small brigade of us kids to the local woods, handed out pails and instructed us to pick until they were full.  For weeks we ate huckleberries in every imaginable form at mealtimes until Dad found a job.  Mom's huckleberry buckle and bursting berry pies often took the place of a substantial supper for the family of seven.

We have huckleberries in Vermont too, but I'm fortunate to have my own well-established blueberry patch with a variety of cultivars that span the season.  The bushes are productive and usually laden with fat berries that ripen faster than I can pick them.  Last year I filled the freezer with plastic bags of these little vitamin powerhouses and feasted on blueberry jam all winter.  This year I expected to do the same.

Enter Turdus migratorius, commonly known as the American Robin.  Described on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website as "the quintessential earlybird," these familiar backyard visitors are also painted as "industrious and authoritarian birds (that) form large flocks and gather in trees to roost and eat berries."  You already know where this is going.

The potential bumper crop of large green globes hanging heavy from a dozen bushes in late spring has yielded exactly one pint of ripe blueberries.  For me, that is.  In July the berry patch became alive and moving with enough landings and take-offs of greedy robins to merit air traffic control.

The two old cats, who used to lie in wait beneath the bushes, now sit in the sun and watch while the dog barks and attempts to scatter the robins - she enjoys nibbling berries off the bushes and isn't about to share without a fight. In years past I never covered my bushes, agreeing that there was always enough for us all.

But now, at the crest of summer, my crop is decimated and tubby robins bend the berry branches low. A few lonely jars of jam from 2009 remain on a basement shelf, a valuable commodity to spread sparingly on morning toast.

The freezer that I efficiently emptied of last year's harvest by baking dozens of muffins in June awaits this year's crop of homegrown blueberries.  And in a twist of irony, my neighbor and I are talking about where we might go to pay and pick our own.  

As for next year, I'm already beating the bushes for a good source of protective netting to outsmart the birds.
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