JONESBORO, Maine — More than 130 blueberry growers, processors and researchers gathered Wednesday at Blueberry Hill Farm, the University of Maine’s research facility, for their annual field day.
The two most repeated words of the day were “rain” and “dry.”
Growers from Prince Edward Island to Quebec to Down East are struggling this season with heavy rain during pollination season — when they don’t want it — and not enough rain this month — when they do.
The result could be a harvest well below average.
Kerry Nash, a grower from Alton, said a cold, wet, windy spring resulted in poor pollination. “I’m looking a little below average [for yield],” Nash said.
Paul Sweetland of Union said his crop definitely will be smaller this year without rain. Roy Allen and Todd Merrill, both of Ellsworth, and Gary Bridges of Calais said the same.
Some growers said they may already have lost half their crop.
“It will be a less than average crop without rain,” Allen said.
Merrill said conditions inland are better than those on the coast. Plants in shallow soils are drying up.
“We need water,” he said.
Maine’s blueberry barrens Down East have received only about .83 of an inch of rain this month, David Yarborough, the University of Maine’s blueberry specialist, said. Maine’s blueberry crop has an annual value of about $190 million, he said, and an overall state economic impact of more than $250 million.
“If we have no rain … well, let’s hope today’s weather is not an indication of the rest of the summer,” Yarborough said on a hot, sunny Wednesday. The blueberry harvest traditionally begins around the start of the second week of August.
Yarborough said some large growers have installed irrigation systems but because they are expensive to maintain and run, particularly in remote fields, smaller growers are banking on Mother Nature to provide moisture.
Yarborough said the moisture — too much or the lack of it — is the biggest factor in this year’s crop success.
“The plants all wintered well,” he said. “But this spring, there was too much rain, affecting pollination.” Now, he added, there isn’t enough. Yarborough already was predicting a below-average crop before the dry spell hit.
“If we get adequate moisture for the remainder of the season, the crop in Maine could be slightly above average at 85 million pounds,” he said. Maine’s average production ranges between 80 million and 90 million pounds of berries annually.
Canadian growers at the field day reported that their crops were predicted to either be at the same level as last year or below.
A second problem growers reported was pressure on the plants from native grasses that are crowding out producing blueberry plants in the fields. Yarborough said the grasses have grown increasingly resistant to herbicides over the years.
“We need to convince growers to try a different type of herbicide rather than just try to eradicate the grasses by using more of the product that clearly isn’t working,” he said. A workshop scheduled for Wednesday afternoon was planned to address that issue, he said.
The good news, Yarborough said, was that crop yields were below average for cultivated blueberries in states such as Michigan, Oregon, Washington, Georgia and New Jersey.
“This will create a higher demand for all blueberries and could drive prices up for wild blueberries,” Yarborough said. Last year, Quebec suffered under drought conditions, losing 50 million pounds of wild berries. This one factor, Yarborough said, pushed prices to twice what they would have been.
“It’s a free market,” he said. “The lower the cultivated crop, the better our prices.”
On hand to hear the growers’ concerns was Paul Ferguson, the new president of the University of Maine System. Ferguson is on a listening tour of the state to determine how best the land grant university can serve the state’s agriculture industry.
“I am here today to affirm the strong partnership that the University of Maine has with small industry and business in Maine,” Ferguson told the growers.“I have a lot to learn here in Maine and I want to hear from you.”
Also attending was Maine Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, who said he wanted to impress on Ferguson how vital the blueberry industry is to Maine, particularly to Washington County. The industry estimates that several thousand workers harvest the crop each August, while several hundred more work in local processing plants.