ELLSWORTH — The stretch of wet weather this summer may have put a damper on a few vacation plans, but it has boosted the prospects for the state’s wild blueberry crop.
Crews throughout the midcoast and Down East Maine are harvesting “like gangbusters,” according to David Yarborough, wild blueberry specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, and early reports indicate this year’s crop could be higher than initially predicted.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture annual wild blueberry forecast pegged the crop at 75 million pounds, about 2 million pounds below last year’s harvest, but still well above the five-year average of 67.7 million pounds. Yarborough noted, however, those estimates came from growers based on the conditions in fields earlier in the summer when there was little rain. That early drought hindered crop potential and limited the growth of the berries.
Rain during the last half of July and early in August helped to increase berry size and the recent dip in temperatures has helped to keep the berries on the plants longer and to keep them firm, Yarborough said. That helps to maintain the quality.
“We’re in good shape,” he said. “We’re looking at a fairly good crop.”
Yarborough quoted a grower from Union who had just finished his harvest, who said he had averaged about 4,000 pounds of berries per acre.
“If everybody did that we’d be at 120 million pounds,” he said. “Our record is 110 million. Who knows if that will hold.”
Last year, Maine produced a total of 77,250,000 pounds of wild blueberries with a total value of about $83 million. The price paid to growers was a record $1.07 per pound.
A bumper crop could drive prices for the berries lower, and there are indications even before the harvest is completed that the price paid to growers may be on the decline from that record level.
The sale price for frozen berries out of Canada is down from where it was last year, according to the Food Industry Report, a New Jersey-based publication that tracks commodity prices nationwide. Those prices include both wild and cultivated berries, according to Rob Kraly, a food industry reporter with the publication.
A strong crop also could flood the market with berries and drive down the price for growers. Kraly noted that recent reports indicate there are upwards of 50 million pounds of blueberries — wild and cultivated combined — frozen in storage.
“There’s a decent amount already in cold storage,” he said. “It looks like prices could be a little lower than last year.”
Pressure from South America and from other fruits also might affect prices, according to Yarborough.
Production of blueberries has increased in South America in recent years, much of it being sold to the North American fresh market during the winter months.
“The trend has been toward increased production there,” he said. “What they don’t sell fresh, they put in the freezer.”
Although producers have worked to increase the consumer market for wild blueberries, most of the crop harvested in Maine is frozen and sold mainly to customers who use them as ingredients in other products, particularly baked goods.
Kraly said increases in production costs, including transportation, may force potential buyers to look for less expensive alternatives for their products, which could lessen the demand for blueberries.
Right now, the demand for Maine’s berries is high and indications are that it will remain high, Yarborough said.
Though there has been no industry talk about prices at this point, he agreed that prices are likely to dip below record levels, but doubted they would drop to the 50-cent-per-pound levels seen earlier this decade. And, he said, a bumper crop could make it easier for growers to deal with a dip in prices.
“You make a little less [per pound], but if you’ve doubled your yield, or increased by 50 percent, you make up for it on volume,” he said.