Wild about blueberries — small fruit’s big flavor source of state pride

You can’t miss Wild Blueberry Land. Motorists can’t help but see notice the great blue geodesic dome on Route 1 in Columbia Falls. The spherical structure was designed and built to resemble the wild Maine blueberries sold inside and catch the eye of curious tourists driving by.

“It’s become a little bit of a landmark,” said Marie Emerson, co-owner of Wild Blueberry Land and the Wild Wescogus Berries farm down the road, which supplies the shop’s wild, low-bush blueberries and fresh fruit used to make the jam, syrup, soda, honey, candy, mixes, muffins, scones, pies and other goods for sale there.

Dell and Marie Emerson built Wild Blueberry Land’s distinct dome using plywood, foam and silicone. The store sells a variety of products made with wild blueberries from the Emersons Wild Wescogus Berries farm.

Marie and her husband, Dell, built Wild Blueberry Land in 1999. The couple came up with the idea after realizing the revenue potential of value-added products made with their wild blueberries.

Marie didn’t want to sell from a standard roadside stand.

“I said, ‘Let’s build a big blueberry,” she said. “If we were going to build something, we needed it to make a statement.”

The Emersons, as well as their family and friends, spent the entire summer of 1999 constructing the distinctive structure. With the help of an engineering student from Canada, the dome was built from plywood, foam and a thin layer of silicone.

“We sawed it all out, numbered it and put it together just like a big puzzle,” Dell said.

Now, 20 years later, Marie and Dell manage a seasonal staff of six or so.

Also for sale are blueberry pies loaded with the low-bush fruit. In fact, the berries pack so much flavor that hardly any sugar is needed for sweetening.

Marie Emerson cuts the dough for Wild Blueberry Land’s famous scones. The store also sells blueberry jam, syrup, soda, honey, candy, mixes, muffins and pies, among other things.

Blueberries, a native plant, grow wild on bushes a little over a foot tall in fields and on the exposed granite bedrock — referred to as “the barrens” — in eastern Maine. The harvest runs from late July into September. The fruit can only be harvested every other season as the entire growing process takes two years.

Cultivated blueberries, grown on high bushes, can be harvested annually. However, they require greater irrigation.

The difference between wild and cultivated blueberries is distinct, yet many people think of the fruit as one kind. That’s why Marie and staff encourage customers to “Take the WILD Pledge,” and agree to always say the word “wild” whenever referencing the Maine’s blueberries.

In August, the Emersons plan to open the Agricultural Maine Wild Blueberry Heritage Center and Virtual Museum, further educating visitors about Maine’s famed fruit, at their Route 1 facility. Visitors will learn about the blueberry’s role in Native American agriculture, ecosystems and animal diets. The antioxidant-rich fruit’s nutritional value also will be covered.

Marie hopes educating consumers about the difference between wild and cultivated blueberries will help preserve family-owned Maine farms struggling to survive in a modern agricultural landscape dominated by large corporations and global competitors.

Of the Emersons’ nearly 200 acres of land, only about 40 are devoted to growing wild blueberries. Those acres are split in two to accommodate the biannual crop, leaving the farm with a 20-acre harvest every year, depending on weather and other circumstances.

Dell Emerson looks out over one of his three wild blueberry fields. Many wild blueberry farmers, like the Emersons, split their fields because the growth cycle for wild blueberries lasts two years.

“For every acre of high-bush you have you have to have two acres of low-bush to even compete,” said Dell, who worked for over half a century at the University of Maine’s wild blueberry research facility in the nearby town of Jonesboro.

Their museum and WILD pledge are all part of the Emersons’ campaign to sustain Maine’s historic industry and foster a greater appreciation for the wild fruit.

“Nothing can replace wild blueberries,” Marie said.

Wild Blueberry Land is located at 1067 U.S. Route 1 in Columbia Falls. For more info, call 483-2583 and visit wildblueberryland.com.