The blueberry story goes back as far as the birth of the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region. For 175 years, these berries have been adding colour to our life while making it delightfully blue.
Quebec forests are considered to be rich in wild berries, since they have been growing in the remaining brushes of all the major fires that have devastated our forested lands. Amongst these is the most abundant, known and delicious fruit: the blueberry, also called “myrtille” in France. The blueberry is a small fruit that grows in the Taïga or peatlands, forming the dominant vegetation of this area that is unattractive for the other types of plants. Blueberry is part of the large lingonberry family that also includes wild blueberries and cranberries. There is more than one type of blueberry. The majority grow on small bushes measuring less than 30 centimeters. With its rustic character, the small fruit resists our arid climate. Moreover, Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean is a boreal region of Quebec that presents typical northern weather and geographic conditions. These conditions affect the agricultural production and the characteristics of biofood products emerging from the soil.
In the past, when our grandparents and great-grandparents were in the industry, the harvesting period was from July to September. The incomes from the industry made a difference for large families at that time. That time of the year was essential for the well-being of the families. Just like harvesting grapes in France! The blueberries were harvested by hand in the forests and ensured supplements to the family’s income. Every member of the family was involved and the camps were not very comfortable after a long day labour. Historically, they were located far from the markets and the regional production had to be sold in its territory.
Although the Amerindians were also gathering their food, the blueberry industry was expanding sharply in the late 1800s. The fact that we have plenty of these small, juicy and sweet berries is explained by the fact that in May 1870, a huge fire destroyed two-thirds of the large Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region. At that moment, the fire quickly transformed the fields, that had been cleared and ploughed by the farmers, into a fire-ravaged ground. Fortunately, crown or upper level fires have a beneficial effect on forest ecosystems. There are few techniques that consist of starting a fire in a field and controlling the flames, still in use today in blueberry production. Despite all the modernizations that have marked our history, the rudimentary aspects of the blueberry crop are fundamental to this industry. All those who are still picking up blueberries by hand highlight the importance of our ancient customs.
The coming of the railway in Roberval in the 1880s revolutionized the blueberry industry and opened export markets throughout the world. In 1905, we were exporting 150 wagons full of blueberries. About 35 years later, in 1940, the blueberry industry became very lucrative and the income became larger than the milk industry that was known for being well rooted. In 1945, the NFB even produced a movie called “La manne bleue” which presented the famous blueberry story while emphasizing the harvesting, transportation and exportation techniques.
Pollination is essential for growing this delicious blueberry that enjoys an excellent reputation internationally. Previously, local bees were sufficient. Perhaps, since the significant increases in blueberry production around 1960, it takes more and more bees to pollinate the vast fields. It has been said that in 1980, around 30000 hives of bees were needed to pollinate 80% of the blueberry production area. Today, the blueberry bushes surface represents the size of Montreal city. The creation of blueberry fields and the freezing of the fruit have revolutionized the industry that owes his popularity to the high quality of blueberry that grows in our region.
Nowadays, we can pick blueberries in the forest or in a blueberry field. The blueberry industry has been mechanized over time.
“Blueberries can keep their exquisite taste and their nutritive values up to two years when the sorting, cleaning and freezing are made in the 24 hours following harvesting.”
The agri-food industry, in particular through agriculture, played an important role in the development of our Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region. Throughout the years, our economic landscape has seen a new form of economy: the agri-food industry. By transforming the blueberry into a large range of local products carrying a quality seal increasingly sought, companies like Délices du Lac-Saint-Jean pay tribute to our ancestors who cleared the land with their hands. With our small jars, we give new life to this precious tradition.
In Quebec, we harvest on average, almost 60 million pounds of wild blueberries each year. During the past fifteen years, the blueberry production has been rising steadily. More than 400 producers have more than 28000 hectares of blueberry fields, which generates a gross value of about 45 million dollars annually.
In Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, there are 110 companies in the food industry that process local products and around 1200 producers totalling 15300 jobs and GDP climbing to 430 million dollars. The main activities are the beef, milk, blueberry and potato production. Several international agreements have been signed in the past decades, which increased the market globalisation. Our small blue pearls are shipped to over 30 countries, including the United States, China, Japan, Germany and United Kingdom. It is estimated that 95 per cent of these exports are sold frozen. Blueberries can keep their exquisite taste and their nutritive values up to two years when the sorting, cleaning and freezing are made in the 24 hours following harvesting.
The blueberry fields add colours to our landscapes. We notice the range of vibrant colours when small flowers in the shape of white small bells emerge from the soil and then give way to the blue pearls. Once the harvest has been completed, this blue-green cloth will become reddish in the autumn, which reminds us of the flames that scorched our ground, the birthplace of our regional economy.
Our regional pride
The people of Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean can relate to the blueberry. When outsiders talk about people in the area, they call them “Blueberries”. It’s a nickname for inhabitants from this charming region of Quebec. Between us, we take pride in this precious industry that defines us. Simply think about its use in different festivals, infrastructures or building names. The word blueberry has a rallying effect and reflects our pride.
Inspired on research by the historian Éric Tremblay