Nearly 30 years ago, in 1988, Theresa Gaffney made the fateful decision to become a blueberry farmer. Newly married to Tom Gaffney, she moved to his home and 100 acres in Stockton Springs, Maine. Of note – a whopping 25 of those acres were covered in lowbush native blueberries.
That same year she started learning conventional methods of blueberry farming from community farmers. Over the next 28 years, while raising five children, Gaffney replaced conventional with organic farming methods, branded the farm as Highland Organics, discovered that blueberry leaves contain twice the amount of antioxidants as blueberries and developed an ever-expanding line of blueberry products to sell at farmers markets.
In 2016, an Australian tea company called Theresa at her farm store and placed an order for 500 pounds of blueberry leaves. Given that she and her six employees hand-harvested only 35 pounds of leaves a year, Theresa sensed that things were about to change at Highland Blueberry Farm.
When Theresa first moved to Stockton Springs, the blueberry fields were being managed by G.M. Allen & Son, a multigenerational company that manages, collects, processes, freezes and sells blueberries wholesale. As she raised and homeschooled her five children, she learned conventional methods of farming blueberries from the Allens and other local farmers.
She quickly realized that she disliked the heavy use of pesticides, herbicides and chemicals. It was the unannounced aerial spraying that bothered her most and what motivated her to research other methods of farming her blueberries. It was then that she discovered the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and began the three-year transition to becoming an organic farm.
During those transition years, Theresa sought new ways to market her fruit and increase sales.
She said, “The prices for blueberries were set in January, and each year we sold our raw fruit to a processing plant after each harvest.”
That first year of farming blueberries, Theresa said that they made about $500. Her first decision was to cut out the middle man with their processing, packaging and trucking fees. She and Tom set up a temporary processing area in their garage and worked to establish a consistent presence at farmers markets. When a customer one day asked if Theresa could freeze her berries, she decided to give it a try. She and Tom built a modest 20- by 30-foot building that contained a 9- by 12-foot freezer, an office space and a processing room with a sink, a fresh pack line and a floor with central drainage, so that they could clean the walls and maintain a sanitary workspace. This also provided space for their farm store where customers could come at their convenience rather than wait to buy their berries at a farmers market.
She said, “We cut costs wherever possible.”
One place where they cut costs in the early years was labor. At this time, she had several young teenagers at home who, like their peers, wanted to make money during the summer. She saw an opportunity to provide a safe environment for kids to work and learn.
She asked interested teens to commit to four weeks of work during the harvesting season when they would work from 7 a.m. to noon raking and harvesting blueberries. Having teens harvesting the blueberries made it possible for her crew of adults to spend their 10-hour days processing the 1,000 to 1,500 berries gathered from the field crew. It also gave her an opportunity to teach her own children and their friends how to work together, how to deal with a boss and how to develop work skills that would benefit them in the future. In 2000, when working in the fields went out of fashion for teens and her own children were grown, Theresa turned to an organization called Blessed Hope, which provided services to women with addiction issues for the seasonal picking and processing.
Blueberry leaves and antioxidants
In 2004 Theresa unexpectedly discovered that her most valuable asset on the farm was not the blueberries but the blueberry leaves. A friend, Kristi Crowe-White, had a class of high school chemistry students from Hampden Academy who needed a project. Theresa was curious as to whether blueberry leaves had nutritional value and suggested that Crowe-White bring her students to the farm to gather and investigate blueberry leaves.
Crowe-White was interested and soon researched the topic and found that blueberry leaves, roots and stems had only been studied in relation to plant health rather than nutrition. That fall, when the leaves were a crimson color, she brought her students out to the Theresa’s farm and collected some leaves. They returned to the lab and began their project with the hypothesis that darker fruits, vegetables and leaves contained higher levels of antioxidants than light-colored fruits, vegetable and leaves. They began their chemistry experiments.
One experiment used a photo spectrometer to read levels of color in the now deep-red blueberry leaves. When Crowe-White called Theresa with results, she reported that her students had discovered that blueberry leaves contain almost twice as much antioxidants as the berries themselves. Crowe-White repeated the tests at the University of Maine chemistry lab to test the students’ work and found the same results. This opportunity for students to engage in scientific research soon changed the direction of Highland Organics.
Theresa said, “I knew that this was a really big discovery, but what could I do with it?” What kept popping into her mind was seeing her grandmother add a few raspberry leaves into every batch of raspberry jam that she made each summer. She kept thinking fruit and leaves need to be together. Gaffney knew that attempts at making blueberry tea had failed because the leaves have no flavor, so what could she do? She decided to apply for a seed grant from the Maine Technology Institute for funds to research and for the development of “Whole Plant Maine Blueberry Tea.”
She and her husband began to think about blueberry plants differently and began experimenting with turning the juicy berries into a dried, shelf-stable product. Theresa applied for a 2006 seed grant from the Maine Technology Institute. Her focus was how to best harvest and process blueberry leaves. She received the grant and has since won two other grants, the most recent in 2016. These three grants, totaling $21,500, support her research into marketing, trade marking and creating a business model for her tea. This research led her to market her farming operation as Highland Blueberry Farm/Highland Organics, “A taste of Wild Maine in every blueberry.”
Theresa did not conduct all research alone. She worked closely with scientists and food specialists at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension who helped her develop efficient drying systems, hone her research goals and meet consumer safety standards. Dr. Rodney Bushway and his brother Al, both members of the Food Science and Human Nutrition department at the University of Maine, worked closely with Gaffney on the antioxidant testing and on developing her value-added teas, one of which takes advantage of her customers’ love of chaga, a medicinal mushroom, often touted for cancer prevention, which is typically ground up and made into tea.
Theresa said, “Chaga has no taste but is nutritionally dense. Our blueberry fields are surrounded by birch trees where chaga grows, so it made sense to create a tea that combined the high antioxidant values of both blueberry leaves and chaga.” By 2008, her tea sales reached $20,000, and they saw a huge potential for growth.
Beth Calder, a food science specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, also gave guidance with other value-added products. One such product is Blueberry Barque. Calder describes the Barque as “a fruit leather that almost has a chip texture. It contains both the sour notes of the blueberries and some fruit notes as well without being too sweet.”
Calder sees Theresa’s creative and open-minded approach to farming as an example to all farmers who are looking to diversify products and expand markets. Calder said, “Gaffney was incredibly open to talking to people here at the University of Maine. She has built long-lasting relationships with us, and she freely shares her ideas and discoveries with other farmers.”
With over 20,000 pounds of frozen organic blueberries available for sale, she and her crew have also added an innovative number of other “value-add” products including Organic Blueberry Chips (Barque), Organic Blueberry Sprinkles, a variety of Organic Blueberry Teas and the newest product, Organic Blueberry Smoothie Powder.
Since 1988, Theresa has become a full-fledged organic blueberry famer and entrepreneur who sees beyond her blueberries. She has a biodynamic approach to farming that encompasses the whole picture. She is takes especially good care of her pollinators, planting pollinator-friendly plants like buckwheat in those patches of her berries that don’t have berries and developing healthy habitats and shelters for wasps, bumblebees and the other 200 pollinators that keep her blueberry fields active.
Theresa also sees advantages of using social media for marketing her products. To take advantage of this communication, she has a graduate student from the University of Maine running Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, blogs and other electronic tools. Theresa said, “Most critical to our internet success is being the first business listed whenever someone Googles organic blueberry leaves.”
That internet presence has led her to orders for blueberry leaves that stretch far beyond her harvesting numbers. Last year Jorge Velazquez, from a tea company in Spain, contacted Theresa asking for three pounds of blueberry leaves. Given her small harvest numbers she was only able to send him a few ounces. When she then got another request for leaves from a cosmetic company in Portland, Maine, and another for 500 pounds of blueberry leaves from an Australian company developing tea for diabetics, she decided it was high time to get other blueberry farmers on board.
She has since joined forces with Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association to help create a cooperative of lowbush native blueberry growers who will begin harvesting leaves in the coming season. Six growers along with Velazquez have joined efforts to develop best practices to potentially help them meet the growing demand for blueberry leaves on the world market.
When Theresa talks about her life as a blueberry farmer, her passion is apparent: “I was just a blueberry farmer providing a good fruit. Now I don’t know where this is going or where it will end.”
Her ability to listen to and provide for her customers’ needs, tapping all the resources provided at her Extension service or building relationships in her community and trusting her creative spirit are secrets to her success. She farms with the thought always in the back of her mind, “If I neglect my fields, my fields will neglect me.”