The price is right?

Posted Dec. 05, 2008, at 5:23 p.m.

The price paid for wild blueberries this year has dropped about 40 percent, according to some growers, and blueberry experts are blaming a bumper crop and a poor economy.

The drop hit growers such as Mike Bailey of Columbia Falls right in the pocketbook.

“I am a small grower with 150 acres,” Bailey said this week. “I do all of the work myself. I had a good yield. I expected the price to go down a bit this year but not this far.”

Last year, Bailey received $1.16 a pound for his fresh wild blueberries, which are sold to a cooperative. This year he got 64 cents.

“It hurts,” he said.

“It’s sort of the perfect storm,” said David Bell of the Wild Blueberry Association of Maine. “Both Maine and Canada had healthy crops this year.”

This year’s crop is estimated to be 90 million pounds, compared with an average of 75 million pounds. Final harvest and price figures will not be available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture until mid-January.

But Bell said the price, which had been rising by leaps and bounds over the past eight years, was too high for the market to sustain in a poor economy.

Last year, the value of Maine’s wild blueberry crop was $83 million, an increase of 38 percent from the 2006 value, due to increases in both price and production.

But this year, growers are reporting that their berries got 60 to 62 cents a pound, compared with $1.07 a pound last year, according to Bell.

In recent months, Bell said, the supply of wild berries increased while the demand decreased.

“The cultivated berry industry didn’t sell all their freezer inventory,” he said. “They then began lowering their price. They are who we are competing with, and that started pulling our price down.”

Bell said that in 2002, berries went for 28 cents a pound. The price rose to 45 cents in 2004, 80 cents in 2006 and more than a dollar a pound last year.

“You have to remember, prices last year were up 40 percent,” David Yarborough, a blueberry specialist at the University of Maine, said this week.

Yarborough said the historic wild berry price is 60 cents a pound. “That’s a very good price, but of course for the growers, all their costs have been going up,” he said.

Buoyed by scientific studies and consumer interest in the cancer-fighting benefits of blueberries, the cultivated-berry industry began planting more bushes. Yarborough said the cultivated crop this year was 413 million pounds when it usually is around 350 million.

“Over the next five or six years there will continue to be a huge increase in their crop,” Bell predicted. “If a large percentage of that crop ends up as freezer berries, they will be competing directly with us.”

Yarborough said another issue is that when prices get high, brokers begin looking for alternatives. “There’s a point when the price is too high, demand drops. Look at this year’s gas situation.”

Nat Lindquist at Jasper Wyman and Sons blueberry processors in Milbridge called the price drop “a market correction.”

Bell said the wild berry industry recognized the increased competition from the cultivated industry and has been concentrating on advertising the wild product as well as seeking more foreign markets.

“If a culture consumes a lot of yogurt, we try to get wild blueberries in that yogurt. In many large cities [in Asia], Western-style bakeries are becoming quite popular, so we market wild blueberries for the Western-style pastries,” he said.

Maine has been marketing blueberries worldwide for 25 years, Bell said. “We have a great success story in Japan, where jams are quite popular.”

Bell said this year has been filled with “good news and bad news. We are extremely concerned about the price. But this is the natural flex of the market when the price goes too high. We are coming off a couple of good years. We always try to get a premium price in the marketplace, but that works against us in a poor economy.”

Bell said there have been a series of industry meetings over the past several weeks. “We are doing the best we can to adjust our promotional programs to really push the wild product,” he said. “The big dynamic here is that the cultivated folks have felt the benefit of our berry’s health story and we need to capitalize on that.”

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