Squash, blueberries become stars at local farms

9 years ago
     CARIBOU, Maine — Among the Aroostook County growers selling produce in the fall and winter, Ayer’s Farm Market in Caribou has built a bit of following with its buttercup squash, a staple that thrives as savory or sweet, fresh or frozen.

      “It’s been our claim to fame,” said Jenn Ayer, who along with her husband Aaron runs the farm, growing around 985 acres of potatoes and 12 acres of vegetables.

     Buttercup squash was one of a bunch of crops Aaron Ayer started growing on the family potato farm when he was in high school and college, along with cauliflower, cabbage, root vegetables and more.

     The buttercups now occupy more than 4 acres of the 12 devoted to vegetables, and are sold from the farm stand during the summer and at area grocery stores, where they’re currently available until they run out.

     “It’s been easy to grow,” Jenn Ayer said of the buttercup variety. “It didn’t require a whole lot of time and effort. It always came nicely.” Next year, they’re going to start growing some buttercups organically — a more challenging way to grow the plant for a higher value, likely for markets in central or southern Maine.

     Buttercup is also easy to prepare, despite its hard skin, Ayer said.

     While one tradition boils the buttercup to peel the skin, “the cheapest, easiest way to prepare” it is to bake it in the oven at night, leave it to cool, then scrape out the seeds and peel in morning, she said. Cut it and freeze it for soups or pie filling, she suggested.

     Ayer said one of her favorite recipes is buttercup squash stuffed with rice, pine nuts cranberries and cheese. “When you cut it into slices, it almost looks like a sunflower.” Her husband likes gorgonzola and squash soup, while their son gravitates towards maple syrup and pecan-topped squash.

     Across the Aroostook River on the eastern side of Caribou, Sam Blackstone of Circle B Farms wakes up many mornings to eat highbush blueberries with oatmeal or cereal for breakfast, in addition to blueberry pies during the holidays — and so can people who shop at Hannaford stores in southern Maine, greater Bangor and Aroostook County.

     The largest highbush blueberry grower in northern Maine and a supplier of regionally-grown vegetables for Aramark, Circle B had to freeze a bunch of its blueberries this summer, Blackstone said. “It was so hot and dry that the berries ripened fast.”

     For better or worse, that means the blueberries will be available frozen through the winter — a taste of summer that perhaps makes the cold, dark months feel a little less harsh.