Maine wild blueberry industry may benefit from farm bill pilot program

After they are flash frozen, blueberries are sorted through a final time by workers at G. M. Allen and Son, Inc. to discard any small, bruised, or discolored berries in order to ensure a quality product in this Aug.14, 2009 photo.
Kate Collins | BDN
After they are flash frozen, blueberries are sorted through a final time by workers at G. M. Allen and Son, Inc. to discard any small, bruised, or discolored berries in order to ensure a quality product in this Aug.14, 2009 photo. Buy Photo
Posted Feb. 21, 2014, at 12:52 p.m.

The farm bill signed by President Barack Obama earlier this month includes a provision for a pilot program that potentially could benefit Maine’s blueberry industry, which had a hand in seeing the provision included in the federal legislation.

The pilot program, which would be implemented in five as yet unchosen states, would allow frozen fruits and vegetables to be used in the U.S. Department of Agriculture fresh fruit and vegetable program for schools. The test states would seek to demonstrate how minimally processed food, including frozen wild blueberries, could be a healthier, less costly option to feed students participating in the program.

Since passage of the farm bill, the Department of Agriculture has 60 days to identify the five states that will participate in the pilot program.

The fresh fruit and vegetable program, administered by the Maine Department of Education, assists schools in providing fresh fruits and vegetables for daily snacks to low-income students. The program was reauthorized in the farm bill; 167 Maine schools participate in it.

The current program allows schools to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables from local farmers and grocery stores. However, when the harvest is over, the program rules prohibit frozen produce being served even though the Department of Agriculture’s own research has confirmed that fresh frozen fruits have the same or greater nutritional value as their fresh counterparts.

In Maine’s case, frozen wild blueberries are significantly cheaper than imported fresh berries, according to the state Wild Blueberry Commission, which would save school districts money.

The impetus for the pilot program originated with Greg Bridges, a Washington County blueberry grower, although it took a few years for the idea to come to fruition.

Bridges, who lives in Baring, said he learned about the food program excluding frozen fruit sometime around 2009. At the same time, he learned that schools were serving imported canned foods. “It just kind of rubbed me the wrong way,” he said this week. Because of Maine’s short growing season, not much fresh fruit and vegetables is available to students under the program, he noted.

Bridges brought the issue to Ed Flanagan, CEO of Wyman’s of Maine, a leading processor of wild blueberries. Flanagan enlisted the support of the American Frozen Food Institute, which assembled a national coalition of frozen fruit and vegetable growers to take the matter to Congress. Flanagan also solicited the support of Maine’s congressional delegation.

“This new pilot program could be a major boost for Maine wild blueberry growers and other farmers who compete during the winter months with fresh food imported from foreign countries,” said David Bell, executive director of the Maine Wild Blueberry Commission, in a news release recently trumpeting the pilot program, which was contained in the farm bill signed into law by Obama on Feb. 7.

Blueberry growers will be gathering for spring meetings being planned by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension next month. Meetings are scheduled March 18 in Waldoboro, March 20 in Ellsworth and March 22 in Machias. The meetings will include briefings on pollination, weeds, fertilizers, regulations, diseases and pests.

In addition, the Cooperative Extension and the Maine Board of Pesticides Control will conduct training on March 22 in Machias to prepare growers for the private pesticide applicator core exam and the blueberry commodity exam with exams to be administered afterward.

For more information about the spring meetings or training, contact the University of Maine Cooperative Extension at (800) 287-0274, e-mail extension@maine.edu or visit the website at www.umaine.edu/blueberries.

 

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