August is the month that many a Mainer’s fancy turns to thoughts of blueberry pies, cobblers, buckles, smoothies, pancakes, muffins or even just piles of the sweet, small berries heaped high on breakfast bowls of cereal.
Late summer is harvest time for the antioxidant-packed wild blueberry, the Maine state berry that grows in barrens along the coast and which long has been deemed a “superfood” by nutrition experts. Recently, Maine growers have harvested about 100 million pounds of wild blueberries every year, most of which are destined to be frozen shortly after being picked. But this year is different than harvests of past. Experts believe the harvest will be smaller this season, that the berries themselves will be smaller than usual and that the prices they bring will be much less than what the growers would like to see for their efforts.
“Every year is different,” David Yarborough, wild blueberry specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said Tuesday. “Unfortunately, this year there are a few issues.”
One of the concerns has been the weather, he said. The cold, windy and wet weather of early spring was not conducive to pollination, which is critical to a healthy blueberry harvest.
“Pollination gives you more berries and bigger berries,” Yarborough said.
Additionally, there recently has been a rain deficit in wild blueberry land. The fruit needs about 4 inches per month, but Down East Maine, where most of the barrens are located, had less than half that amount in July. Although many larger growers have in-ground irrigation systems to help during drier years, not all of them do, he said.
“A half-inch of rain twice a week would be optimal, but we never get that,” Yarborough said.
Still, the weather does not account for all of the challenges facing the state’s wild blueberry growers, who have grappled with tumbling prices even while harvesting bumper crops of the fruit. One big problem is the increase in competition from Canadian wild blueberry growers. Production in Quebec went from 50 million pounds in 2015 to 126 million pounds last year. Another issue is the cultivated highbush blueberries that are grown in vast quantities in California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and South America. World production of the cultivated berries was 1 billion pounds in 2014 and is predicted to hit 1.5 billion pounds this year.
“Wild blueberries can’t be viewed in isolation,” Nancy McBrady, the executive director of the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine, told the BDN last November. “The larger blueberry world is actually awash in blueberries.”
That has been troubling for Maine growers, who have seen their per-pound price drop by 15 cents per year over the last three years. According to Yarborough, the break-even price for many Maine growers is about 50 cents per pound. Last year, the price was 27 cents per pound. The falling prices has changed how growers are doing business, he said. This spring, Maine growers brought in 27,000 honeybee hives, a dramatic decrease from the 50 million hives they usually rent to ensure good pollination. Some growers have cut back on the numbers of acres in production, and the Passamaquoddy Wild Blueberry Company, a major producer which generally harvests between six and eight million pounds of berries, will not be harvesting this summer at all, Yarborough said.
“Demand and supply are not equivalent,” he said. “The demand is not growing as fast as we can increase the supply.”
Overall, demand for blueberries is increasing, he said — per capita blueberry consumption for Americans used to be one pound per person, which has grown to three pounds per person.
“But if you’ve increased your production six times, it far outstrips that,” he said.
Some growers are signaling that they are interested in switching from a conventional system to an organic system, in large part because organic wild blueberries can command the much higher price of $1.60 per pound. But that transition takes about three years to make, Yarborough said.
“They do want to ensure there are no pesticide residues,” he said.
Last month, Maine’s congressional delegation announced that the United States Department of Agriculture has approved up to $10 million for a “bonus buy” of Maine wild blueberries. The bonus buys help protect American farmers from unexpected market conditions by purchasing surplus goods and distributing them to food banks and other charitable institutions, the delegation explained.
“This investment to alleviate the supply issue, combined with the industry’s efforts to boost demand, will help create new opportunities for wild blueberry growers and support a bright future for this unique Maine crop,” U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Bruce Poliquin said in a joint statement.
But the extra money cannot solve everything, Yarborough said.
“It certainly does help, but it’s not going to fix the problem,” he said. “We’d rather see increased consumption of wild blueberries, but that doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a real effort to change habits.”