Growers optimistic as blueberry harvest gets underway Down East

Posted Aug. 09, 2014, at 2:14 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 10, 2014, at 3:31 p.m.

MACHIAS, Maine — It’s that time of year when everything’s coming up blue in Washington County as the harvest of the region’s profitable wild blueberry barrens began this week.

Representatives of two major companies said it was too early to predict the size of this year’s harvest, although a couple of growers were upbeat about the quality.

The crop looks very good, said Dave Bell, general manager of Cherryfield Foods. “The quality is excellent,” he said.

It is too early to calculate what average yields will be, said Bell, meeting with a reporter on a vast blueberry barren in Columbia on Thursday.

Earlier in the week, Bell said he thought this year’s crop would be average. “It’s really hard to tell,” he said. “Damage can be pretty deceiving.”

“We think there’s a good crop out there,” he added, noting that growers have benefited from good weather.

“I think all of us at Wyman’s feel that it’s not a record crop,” said Ed Flanagan, president and CEO of Jasper Wyman & Son, based in Milbridge.

“A good crop,” he added, “but not a record crop. We’re happy with it.”

Wyman’s harvesting operations began the previous week in Knox County and geared up this week first in Hancock and then in Washington. Wyman will harvest blueberries from about 4,500 acres it owns or leases.

Ed Hennessey, whose company, Hennessey Brothers, has about 300 acres of blueberry land from Cooper to Beddington in neighboring Hancock County, said fruit quality looks excellent. “We’ve had rain at the right time …The fruit looks good.”

“I think we have a better than average crop,” said Hennessey. There was some frost damage, he said, but the company’s blueberry bushes had good pollination in the spring.

Yields vary depending on the area, he said. “They’re all over the place,” said Hennessey, ranging from 3,000 to 10,000 pounds per acre. The average, according to Hennessey, is about 3,000 to 4,000 pounds per acre.

Maine’s wild blueberry harvest averages about 86 million pounds per year. It was 87.9 million pounds in 2013, down slightly from 91.2 million in 2012, according to figures recently released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Prices averaged 97 cents per pound for total revenue of about $85 million compared to 75 cents per pound in 2012 and revenue of $69 million. (According to Bell, the field price determined by USDA of 97 cents per pound for 2013 is “very inaccurate,” and he and others have notified the agency, which is working to correct the figure.)

The industry has a significantly larger economic impact beyond harvest revenues, noted Bell, who served as executive director of the Maine Wild Blueberry Commission for nearly 20 years before accepting the post with Cherryfield Foods in May. The commission had studies done in the late 1990s that showed the statewide blueberry harvest was worth about $173 million in direct sales, Bell recalled. The industry’s total economic impact was more in the neighborhood of $250 million, including payrolls of $63 million. The majority of those revenues — 65 to 70 percent — benefit Washington County.

Wild blueberries are Maine’s fourth-largest crop in terms of revenue, according to Bell. About 60,000 acres of land is under management for wild blueberry production in Maine, he said, with about half the acreage harvested annually.

Cherryfield Foods and Wyman both have considerable operations in Washington County. Cherryfield Foods, a division of Oxford Frozen Foods Ltd. in Oxford, Nova Scotia, has a processing plant in Cherryfield — so does Wyman — and is the parent company of Maine Wild Blueberry Co., which operates a processing plant in Machias.

Unlike Wyman, which markets frozen blueberries under its own brand name, Cherryfield Foods primarily supplies blueberry products to other companies that use them as ingredients for yogurt and other food products. It does, however, supply blueberries to some companies that market them under other brand names, such as Dole.

It is a brief window for harvest operations — about four weeks. “We like it to be three weeks,” said Bell. Weather is a big factor, he noted.

The objective is to get the crop harvested as quickly as possible and to freeze the fruit for additional processing later. Although the harvest only provides temporary work for people, the processing plants of Wyman and Cherryfield Foods (and Maine Wild Blueberry) operate year-round.

“Most people in Maine don’t even know the barrens exist,” observed Bell, driving along a sand and gravel road in Columbia surrounded on both sides by acres and acres wild blueberry bushes. “This road is not much more than what’s under theses blueberries,” he added. Mechanized harvest operations were being conducted in an area a few miles from the nearest paved road.

The barrens are well suited for wild blueberries but are “not particularly good for growing anything” else, said Bell. The sandy soil is very acidic, low in fertility and low in water-holding capacity. The barrens are open because surrounding forests never encroached enough to close the forest canopy.

Wild blueberries are cultivated on a two-year cycle. In between, the plants are pruned by mowing — growers used to burn the fields, a practice that still has limited use — to encourage new growth. Bell compared it to apple trees. “The best fruit comes from two-year-old wood,” he said.

“This is really a unique agricultural system,” said Bell, “taking naturally occurring plants and managing them for human consumption.”