Wild blueberry harvest ‘solid’

Posted Aug. 31, 2009, at 9:07 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:57 a.m.

ELLSWORTH, Maine — With the wild blueberry harvest winding down, the crop this year looks to be a healthy one.

“From what I’m hearing, people are pleased with the quality of the berries,” David Bell, executive director for the Maine Wild Blueberry Commission, said Monday. “There have been varying reports, but it looks like a very good crop; but it won’t be anywhere near a record crop.”

With some crews still harvesting Down East, growers indicated the outlook is good.

“It’s a solid crop,” said Ragnar Kamp, general manager at Cherryfield Foods, said Monday, “but not a record.”

The weather played a key role in the crop’s development this year. Sunshine early allowed for a good blossom set, but the rain through much of the summer slowed the growth of the berries, delaying the start of the harvest by a week. A stretch of sunny, warm weather in August then threatened to shrink the berries.

The recent heavy rains from Hurricane Bill and Tropical Depression Danny have helped the berries set up, Kamp said.

“We had a dry spell and those growers who don’t have irrigation might have suffered,” he said. “Overall, I think the weather has turned out to be helpful.”

Last season was a banner year for Maine’s wild blueberry producers, with nearly 90 million pounds of berries harvested. Wild blueberries are a $250 million economic engine in Maine, most of it in Washington and Hancock counties.

Experts forecast in July that this year’s crop, including harvests in Maine, Nova Scotia, Quebec, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, could top 240 million pounds, and said Maine’s share could approach 100 million pounds. Experts contacted Monday did not indicate whether they thought the crop would ultimately meet those expectations.

The wet weather earlier this summer did help to foster a new threat to Maine’s wild blueberry crop — the Valdensinia leaf spot, a fungus that has been prevalent in Canada, particularly in Nova Scotia, which appeared in Maine fields for the first time this summer. According to Bell, the fungus did not affect the overall harvest this year, but could pose a real danger in the future.

University of Maine Cooperative Extension has worked with the industry to help growers identify the fungus and deal with it. The concern is that it can be spread by rakers and vehicles, including mechanical harvesters moving from field to field.

“A big concern is that it infects the leaves and the spores can survive for a couple of years,” Bell said. “With hand crews and vehicles moving around, the opportunity to spread the disease is large.”

Weather next year will be a factor in dealing with the fungus. A wet spring and early summer will provide conditions in which it can grow. A dry stretch early in the season could reduce the threat, Bell said.

Although the crop this year is healthy, Bell said, the market for the fruit is uncertain.

“We’re going through a tough economic situation, and our customers have been affected just like everyone else,” Bell said.

While that situation is a short-term economic problem, it will be exacerbated by an increase in the crop of cultivated blueberries. In response to the news of the health benefits of blueberries, the cultivated industry planted acres of new berries.

“It takes a few years for them to develop,” Bell said. “So their crop size is still growing even though the demand is stagnant or worse.”

Most of Maine’s wild blueberries are frozen and used as ingredients in other products. In recent years, however, marketing efforts, including spreading the word about the health benefits, have increased the retail consumer market for the fruit.

Even so, Bell said, the per capita consumption of blueberries remains relatively low.

“Americans need to eat more fruits and vegetables,” he said. “We all need to cut down on the carbs and do what the recommendations say.”

rhewitt@bangordailynews.net

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