February 25, 2018
Business Latest News | Poll Questions | Opioid Epidemic | Joyce McLain | Tourney Time 2018

Maine growers struggle with surplus blueberries, plummeting prices

BDN File | BDN
BDN File | BDN
Blueberries wait to be raked, Aug. 12, 2016.
Buy Photo
By Jennifer Mitchell, Maine Public

Finding a package of blueberries these days is as easy as pie. They’re plentiful in the fresh and frozen sections of the supermarket. But while the supply is high, the market price has taken a dive, and that has growers feeling blue.

Ask a Maine wild blueberry grower how business is these days, and you’ll get a common response.

“Terrible. Just horrible,” William Rudelitch said recently in Ellsworth, where he was attending one of several meetings organized by the Maine Cooperative Extension to discuss strategies for staying in business.

Rudelitch has a small operation in the Washington County town of Harrington, on about 30 acres.

A typical acre of blueberry barrens will yield about 2,000 to 4,000 pounds of berries, depending on pollination and other factors. It may sound like a lot, but the prices paid at freezer facilities to growers such as Rudelitch have slid into the pennies per pound.

“Oh 25, 29 [cents] — in there. Half the cost of production, maybe. Not good,” he said.

Ten years ago, the same pound of berries was worth $1.09. So what’s going on? To understand the price slide, one needs a basic primer: Blueberry 101.

“Traditionally, cultivated blueberries are a fresh market fruit, and wild blueberries are traditionally a processed fruit,” wild blueberry specialist David Yarborough with the Maine Cooperative Extension said.

Yarborough said you can roughly categorize blueberries into two groups: cultivated, or “high bush,” and wild, or “low bush.” Wild blueberries, those found only in Maine and parts of Canada, are smaller, have a more complex flavor and contain higher levels of antioxidants than their cultivated high bush cousins, he said.

Traditionally, the two fruits never competed. But recently other countries have stepped up their cultivated high-bush berry effort.

“If you look at British Columbia, they produced 160 million pounds of blueberries, and you know, you usually think of high bush as fresh market. They froze 110 million of the 160 million, so all those blueberries are now sitting and competing directly with wild blueberries,” Yarborough said.

That’s bad news for a Maine industry that sends only 1 percent of its crop to the produce stand and 99 percent to be processed in muffin mixes, granola bars and frozen in bags. The state has pumped more than 100 million pounds of low bush fruit into the frozen market each year for the last three growing cycles.

As with most commodities, prices have been fickle. For smaller growers, the ride can be especially bumpy. But one producer said he saw the writing on the wall a decade ago and made some changes.

Worcester’s Wild Blueberries in Orneville Township has about 70 acres in production and is one of the few commercial berry operations in Piscataquis County. There’s not much to see at the moment but a windy, snow-swept field. But unlike other small growers, Everett Worcester and his wife, Lee, seem optimistic about the summer harvest.

Everett said for a long time he did things the conventional way and trucked his berries to a processor an hour and a half away.

“From this farm and the other farm to the freezer plant either in Ellsworth or Orland. But the prices kept fluctuating so bad that we just veered off in another direction. We said, ‘We need to get control of this,’” he said.

So about 10 years ago, the Worcesters revamped their business plan and did the reverse of what other producers were doing. They started selling fresh quarts and pints of berries at farmers markets and then worked to get them distributed to nearby stores, bakeries and foodservice outlets.

Lee said after an investment of tens of thousands of dollars, they could also do their own freezing and look for creative ways to diversify beyond the requisite jams and jellies.

“Everett and I have developed, oh, 15, 16 different products. We have a new product that’s about to come out: Everett’s Blueberry Salsa,” she said. “We develop a new product when customers keep asking over time, ‘Do you have?’ and we then develop it. And for, what, two, three years, they’ve been after salsa.”

There’s also a barbecue sauce and a special line of wedding favors: tiny jars of blueberry jam called “Something Blue.” The profits made on value-added products such as those bring stability, the Worcesters say, to an industry known for its volatility.

But it didn’t happen overnight. Dozens of growers such as Rudelitch have no choice but to face yet another year of predicted low prices. In order to stay in the game, he said everybody he knows is cutting back.

“On future projects, on just workforce, less fertilizer, less bees, less everything,” he said.

Yarborough, similar to what New England’s small cranberry producers have been coping with for years, some wild blueberry growers likely will be forced out of business. Others will try to hang on until prices turn around.

In the meantime, Yarborough said consumers could have the biggest role of all to play: Buying and eating more Maine wild blueberries, he said, will help turn the market around.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.

 


Have feedback? Want to know more? Send us ideas for follow-up stories.

You may also like