MACHIAS, Maine — Federal budget cuts have delayed until March the release by the U.S. Department of Agriculture of its estimate of Maine’s 2011 wild blueberry harvest.
Government statisticians traditionally release those figures in early February, but this year they won’t be ready for prime time until March 15, said David Yarborough, the Maine Extension Service wild blueberry specialist.
Yarborough said Wednesday that it’s his best guess that Maine’s 2011 crop will be “normal” at about 80 to 85 million pounds. The bulk of those berries were grown in barrens in rural Washington County. Yarborough said midcoast growers had lower yields per acre than did their Down East counterparts, due to weather during pollination and a lack of rainfall during the run up to harvest.
The state’s 2010 crop weighed in at 83 million pounds, down from 88.1 million pounds in 2009. The 2010 harvest was estimated to be worth $50.6 million. The United States is the world’s largest producer of both “wild” low bush blueberries native to Maine and cultivated high bush varieties grown in Michigan, New Jersey, Washington, Oregon, Georgia and Arkansas. The total value of the 2010 crop, at 493 million pounds, was estimated at $644 million. Maine’s wild blueberry crop represents about 15 percent of all U.S. blueberry production.
Due to marketing and promotional strategies developed by the North American Blueberry Council, demand for blueberries has risen significantly in recent years. In the year 2000, per capita consumption in the U.S. was estimated at 0.26 pounds. By 2010, that number had increased to 1.1 pounds, due largely to promotion of the antioxidant properties of what the industry has dubbed “little blue dynamos.”
According to the USDA, rising consumption has prompted a flurry on new highbush plantings, and acreage devoted to blueberries had increased from 71,075 acres in 2005 to 110,000 acres in 2010. With 60,000 acres, Maine is the largest producer of wild blueberries in the world, even with only half of those acres in production, given a two-year cultivation cycle.
There are six companies in Maine that process, freeze and can wild blueberries, as well as one fresh pack cooperative. An estimated 99 percent of all the berries harvested in Maine are frozen for use as a food ingredient.