PORTLAND, Maine — The Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine has asked the federal government to buy 30 million pounds of the frozen fruit to deal with oversupply from the harvests of the past two years.
Maine’s congressional delegation wrote a letter this week supporting the blueberry commission’s request, noting that near-record crop sizes of cultivated blueberries in 2014 and 2015 and declining prices have created “a critical oversupply issue” that’s driven the price lower than the cost of production.
“The situation is not sustainable for Maine growers, and the purchase of 30 million pounds of Maine wild blueberries would help stabilize falling prices and farm income,” the letter signed by U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Bruce Poliquin states.
David Yarborough, a blueberry specialist with the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension, said Maine growers have gotten better yields as Canadian growers, particularly in northern New Brunswick, have added growing acres. Wild blueberry production was up on both sides of the border last year, according to cooperative extension estimates.
“With a larger volume of berries on the market, there’s more opportunities for new product development and new markets,” Yarborough said.
Until then, he said, “it’s a growing pain kind of thing until the market adjusts and we find a home for those berries. A temporary reprieve by taking those off would be very helpful for everyone.”
Yarborough said growers are working on finding new markets for wild frozen blueberries abroad, in countries such as China and Korea, as well as increasing consumption in the United States.
In their letter urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s purchase of surplus berries, the congressional delegation said the department should consider the nutritional benefits of Maine’s wild frozen blueberries as an antioxidant.
Yarborough said publication of preliminary average pound prices to growers has been delayed this year, but prices for 2015 are likely to be lower than the 60 cents per pound received last year.
“It will be lower than 60 cents, guaranteed,” Yarborough said, but he didn’t have enough information on hand to estimate just where the average price would land.
In their letter, the congressional delegation wrote that prices for frozen wild blueberries have dropped by about 50 percent in less than five years “and are now estimated to be less than the cost of production.”
Yarborough said growers keep the exact inventory of frozen wild blueberries to themselves for competitive reasons, making it impossible to know exactly the scale of the surplus beyond the 30 million pound purchase requested.
The congressional delegation said the USDA has $222 million on hand to purchase surplus commodities in its 2016 budget.