Theresa Gaffney looked out the window of the squat white barn on her blueberry farm in Stockton Springs, admiring briefly the acres of sundrenched goldenrod and raked-over bushes that swayed in the early September breeze. All the fruit had been picked. This year’s blueberry harvest was over. But a second harvest had just begun.
“To my knowledge, we’re the only farm that harvests not just the fruit, but also the leaves,” said Gaffney, a native of Orland who has grown and sold organic blueberries at Highland Blueberry Farm with her husband, Tom, since 1999. “Nothing goes to waste.”
Two years ago, the Gaffneys added a second element to their business, one that Theresa herself created: whole-plant wild Maine blueberry tea, available at select stores across Maine and online at www.organicblueberrytea.com. When brewed (hot or iced), it comes out a deep, rich, slightly purple-tinged blue. So blue that “Mood Indigo” starts playing when you drink it. So blue the sky turns pink in embarrassment. So blue that if blue had a flavor, it undoubtedly would taste like this tea.
Gaffney makes the tea right on the farm, with the help of a group of women from Blessed Hope Ministry, a program run by Calvary Chapel that helps people overcome substance abuse problems. Not only is everything produced at the farm organic, it’s also a way for the Gaffneys to help those in need.
When the couple started out in 1999, it became clear that organic was the way to go. Theresa Gaffney didn’t have a background in organic farming or agriculture, but she knew she didn’t want to use chemical pesticides on her crop.
“You don’t need a degree to understand the concept that putting poison on your crop isn’t a good idea. There’s plenty to be learned from traditional growing methods, but my thinking is, if you have to wear a biohazard suit to apply it, why would you eat fruit that is covered in it?” said Gaffney. “We didn’t have any bees when we started. Within two years, the bees were back, as well as some really cool natural pollinators. We have to weed the fields, sure, but it’s worth it.”
Five years of bumper crops of organic blueberries gave her the experience she needed to feel confident as a businesswoman and as a farmer. She was ready to try something new. As it happened, Kristi Crowe, a friend of Gaffney’s and a doctoral candidate in food science at the University of Maine, was teaching chemistry at Hampden Academy and needed a project to do with her students. Naturally, Gaffney’s mind turned to blueberries.
“I always wondered about the blueberry leaves,” said Gaffney. “I knew the fruit was high in antioxidants, but what about the leaves? What value did they have? I felt like they must have useful properties.”
Crowe was game for it. She and her students, along with Al and Rod Bushway, food scientists at UM, began testing the leaves for anthocyanin, aka the antioxidants that blueberries are renowned for. None of them expected the results they got: The leaves were even higher in antioxidants than the actual fruit. Almost twice as high, in fact, with blueberries containing just over 2 milligrams per gram of anthocyanin, and the tea mixture containing nearly 4 milligrams per gram. It’s also packed with vitamin C, vitamin E and manganese.
Three seed grants from the Maine Technology Institute, as well as assistance from the Advanced Manufacturing Center at the University of Maine, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, and the Maine Small Business Development Center, allowed for development of the process, and purchase of the machinery used to make the tea.
“Without their help, we wouldn’t have been able to do this,” said Gaffney. “We had to come up with a unique process for drying the fruit and the leaves.”
The tea-making process kicks into gear in September and October, after the blueberry harvest in August. First, the blueberry twigs with the leaves attached are put into bags and set aside. When the time comes to make tea, Gaffney puts them into a heated, solar-powered tumbler outside of the barn, and lets the leaves spin for several hours until they’re fully dried and detached from the twigs.
Meanwhile, Gaffney has taken the Grade C berries from the harvest — 2,800 pounds of berries that are perfectly edible, but may be slightly squished or otherwise not as attractive — and purees them into a thick, creamy liquid. Workers spread the blueberry pulp onto trays and put them into a high-powered dryer until they are almost fully dehydrated. The dried blueberries are broken up into small chips to be added to the tea.
The Blessed Hope women begin sorting through the leaves at that point. They sit along a slow-moving conveyor belt and pluck each individual leaf from the surface, adding them to a clean, rustling bag of leaves, free of twigs, dirt and other plants. The leaves are put through a grinder briefly, mixed with the blueberry chips and are put into tins, ready to be sold.
It’s a slow, exacting process that results in a product that’s both high in quality and sold with the knowledge that every part of the procedure is organic and locally generated.
“We can’t automate this process,” said Gaffney. “Whole Foods was interested in selling the tea, but we just can’t meet the demand for it. Handmade means smaller batches, but your product is so much better.”
The women from Blessed Hope come in several times a week to sort through leaves, do tasks around the farm and enjoy fellowship. Gaffney believes the careful, sometimes tedious process is therapeutic for anyone, not just those who are coming out of a background of substance abuse and destructive behavior.
“I like the idea of people working together, with their hands,” said Gaffney. “These women come here, some of whom have never been on a farm or seen a blueberry bush, and they’re working with tools and driving a tractor within a few weeks. It’s empowering.”
Sarah, 23, a resident of New York City who has been with Blessed Hope for three months, had never been on a farm before arriving at Highland Blueberry Farm.
“I didn’t understand anything about how something like blueberries are grown,” she said. “I appreciate how a farm works now. And the tea is awesome. You don’t even need to sweeten it. It’s naturally sweet.”
As of the second week of September, Alicia, also 23, had been on the farm for just a few weeks, and until arriving had never tasted a blueberry.
“I just assumed I wouldn’t like it,” she said. “Then Theresa made blueberry crisp. I definitely had some of that.”
For Gaffney, the joy comes in making something that she can feel good about selling. It’s good for you, it’s good for the environment, and it helps people. If you’ll pardon the pun: It suits her to a T.
“There’s multiple aspects to it,” she said. “Yes, this is a business. But it’s a lot more than just selling tea. It’s good on a lot of levels.”
Highland Organics Whole Plant Wild Maine Blueberry Tea is available at the Belfast Co-op, Fiddler’s Green Farm in Belfast, Hampden Natural Health Food Store and at Highland Blueberry Farm on Old County Road in Stockton Springs. The tea will be available at the Common Ground Country Fair in Unity, Sept. 19-21. For information, visit www.organicblueberrytea.com.