JONESBORO, Maine — It should be a fruitful season — above average — for wild Maine blueberries, according to an expert and growers who attended an annual meeting and field day event Wednesday.
About 150 people, representing growers, processors, vendors and suppliers, attended the gathering at Blueberry Hill Farm, the wild blueberry research and University of Maine Cooperative Extension facility. They came to hear David Yarborough, the blueberry specialist for the UMaine Cooperative Extension, discuss his forecast for this year’s crop and listen to researchers talk about their latest projects.
A marketing consultant for the wild blueberry industry also briefed attendees on its advertising and marketing campaign and how it is making subtle but important changes.
“We’ve had a fairly mild winter, pretty late spring. But the weather conditions have been fairly conducive to good pollination this year,” Yarborough said. “Midcoast had a little less pollination, but Down East pollination looked pretty good.”
Between 75,000-80,000 hives of bees were used to pollinate this year’s crop.
“Although we had a late start to the season, we’ve had plenty of rainfall — ample rainfall, really — and wild blueberries like cool and wet conditions,” Yarborough said. “So growing conditions have been fairly optimal.”
In the past, Maine’s crop has averaged about 90 million pounds. This season, Yarborough expects the yield to be above average, in the range of 90-95 million pounds, he said.
The harvest will begin in southern Maine as early as next week, he noted, and quickly will work its way up the coast. The harvest on the blueberry barrens of Down East Maine will begin around Aug. 3, he said.
Yarborough asked for input from several growers present at the meeting.
“I think we’ll probably have a very good crop,” Bill Malay, a representative of Cherryfield Foods, told the audience, an assessment echoed by several other growers.
The Wild Blueberry Association of North America began using a new logo in June that puts greater emphasis on the word wild, which is featured prominently in associated marketing materials and in a tagline accompanying marketing efforts: “Pick wild.”
“Wild is our brand,” said Michael Collins, senior marketing strategist for Westbrook-based Ethos Marketing and Design, which handles marketing for the association. The new emphasis has been generating a “great response” so far, he added.
Another slight shift, he said, is by putting a greater emphasis on the taste of wild blueberries. While taste will be the primary focus, marketing efforts will continue to stress the health benefits of wild blueberries.
In addition, the association’s marketing campaign now is oriented more toward creating increased consumer demand, he said.
The association began using digital social media about four years ago and has full-blown digital media tools, such as Facebook, Twitter and a website, which is being revamped and will relaunch next month.
“We’re all about online now,” Collins told the group. “We’re getting in front of those blueberry consumers.”
State Agriculture Commissioner Walter Whitcomb, who briefly addressed the gathering, noted the marketing efforts resonated with a counterpart of his in Arkansas, where Whitcomb recently visited on business. An Arkansas agriculture official referred to the association’s YouTube commercial featuring a bear shopping in a store for wild blueberries, Whitcomb said.
University of Maine System Chancellor James Page also talked to the group briefly, acknowledging recent budget cuts the system has endured and likely will face in the next few years. With the belt tightening the university system still faces in the short term, the blueberry industry should focus on identifying “critical functions” provided by the Cooperative Extension, he said, so the university can allocate its financial resources accordingly.