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Rock removal is clean alternative to burning for blueberry farm

A portion of the blueberry field in Washington County is clear of rocks thanks to NRCS funds.  Photo courtesy NRCS-Maine, Machias Field Office.

By Thomas Kielbasa
Public Affairs Specialist, NRCS-Maine

COLUMBIA, Maine (Aug. 19, 2015) – Maine is the largest producer of wild blueberries in the world, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is helping producers and the environment by making a difference in one agricultural practice in the state.

In Washington County – the easternmost county in the United States – NRCS has provided funding for the Passamaquoddy Tribe to clear rocks from a 65-acre lowbush blueberry field. In order to stimulate higher yields, the tribe’s “Passamaquoddy Wild Blueberry Company” prunes the blueberry plants every other year on the rocky fields by burning the fields using fuel oil or propane, but the technique has the risk of potential wildfires and the burning has a negative impact on air quality.

A blueberry field in Washington County awaits rock removal via NRCS EQIP funding, June 2015.   Photo courtesy NRCS-Maine, Machias Field Office.                                A smoke-free alternative is simply to prune the blueberry fields with a flail mower, but rocks in the ground can easily damage the blades on a mower. Utilizing funding through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), NRCS provided funds to hire excavators to clear rocks from half of the blueberry field this year, with plans to clear the rest of the field next year.

NRCS District Conservationist Dave Garcelon said the goal is to clear the rocks from between 75 and 100 percent of the field, but in most cases, all of the surface rocks are removed.  Occasionally a few very large rocks cannot be moved and are left in the field.

“As long as they can see the big rocks when they are mowing they can go around them,” Garcelon explained. “It’s the rocks that stick up four or five inches that can bust the flail mowers.”

He said that the flail-mowing on rock free fields is really the environmentally friendly alternative to pruning by fire.

“It is an air quality issue, so that is why we are providing funding to allow this non-burning technique,” Garcelon said.

In Garcelon’s district in Washington County, NRCS has funded 158 EQIP contracts with 116 blueberry growers since 2004 for obstruction removal. Garcelon said this has resulted in more than $3.5 million in EQIP funding over the past nine years.