In Maine, the wild blueberry — small, sweet, and jam-packed with antioxidants — turns rocky fields in coastal counties blue in late summer and brilliant red in the fall.
The harvest has a greening effect, too, on the state’s economy, bringing millions of dollars every year to Maine blueberry growers, processors, harvesters and others who benefit from the tiny but powerful fruit. In fact, a study a decade ago showed that the direct and indirect economic impact of the wild blueberry business added up to $250 million. The future of the official Maine state berry, deemed a “superfood” by nutrition experts that may fight disease and help with brain health, was bright.
But that bright future has dimmed into a gloomier present for Maine’s wild blueberry economy. Despite bumper crops of more than 100 million pounds in both 2014 and 2015, the value of wild blueberry production has dropped fairly precipitously. In 2015, the production value for wild blueberries was $46.2 million, down 26 percent from the previous year.
Although it is too soon to know exactly how many berries were harvested this summer and what the value of the crop was, signs point to another big year for production and more downward pressures on the price, according to Nancy McBrady, the executive director of the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine.
“It is troubling,” she said last week. “There are grower and processor concerns about this… first and foremost, the commission understands the challenge and takes it really seriously. It’s a real concern of ours.”
So what’s going on with Maine’s wild blueberries? McBrady said to understand, it’s necessary to look outside of the state.
“Wild blueberries can’t be viewed in isolation,” she said. “The larger blueberry world is actually awash in blueberries.”
Those berries are generally not the the small, wild blueberries that people in Maine see on roadside stands every August. Cultivated highbush blueberries, larger and more watery than the wild berries, are grown in vast quantities in California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, Canada, as well as in South America. World production of the cultivated berries hit 1 billion pounds in 2014 and is predicted to hit 1.5 billion pounds next year.
“Consumers are very familiar with fresh highbush blueberries offered all year round,” McBrady said.
But because there is such an increase in yield for cultivated highbush blueberries, more are being frozen than ever before. Now, about 40 percent of the highbush berries are frozen, competing directly with Maine’s wild blueberries, about 99 percent of which are frozen. All those frozen, cultivated berries are driving down the price, she said.
“Everybody’s price goes down,” McBrady said. “That’s the context that Maine wild blueberries enter.”
Greg Bridges of Meddybemps, in Washington County, is a third generation wild blueberry farmer at Bridges Wild Blueberries.
“We’ve done a great job of growing the berries,” he said. “What’s happened is that the demand was always bigger than the supply. I think we’ve basically surpassed the demand this year.”
Both Bridges and McBrady said that educating consumers on the differences between wild blueberries and cultivated highbush blueberries is critical to the industry in Maine.
“Outside of New England, our biggest barrier is education,” McBrady said. “Consumers for the most part don’t understand there’s a difference between cultivated berries and wild blueberries, although it’s immediately obvious once you taste them.”
Although both wild blueberries and cultivated berries are considered to be superfoods, the wild berries have more antioxidants than cultivated berries, McBrady said. She is hopeful that the current popularity of smoothies and healthful fruit and vegetable drinks will lead to more of a market for the Maine wild blueberry.
“We want to position ourselves as the ultimate ingredient for smoothies,” she said. “For most consumers, it comes down to taste.”
Until the price goes up for Maine wild blueberries, farmers are having to make some difficult choices.
“Wild blueberry growers are basically trying to save money,” Bridges said. “I think people are going to cut back on their inputs, trying to be more economical. Pricing dictates everybody’s life.”
Reducing inputs include reducing the numbers of honeybees farmers bring to their blueberry fields. Honeybees cost more than $100 per hive, McBrady said, and cutting back on hives will save money but also could reduce pollination.
“There’s pros and cons to everything,” she said.
Bridges would like more Mainers to seek out and eat wild Maine blueberries — “just a half cup a day,” he said — and also urge locals to be better advocates for regional agricultural products such as wild blueberries, lobster and other Maine farm and forest products. Mainers can help get the word out to other folks about what makes the state’s wild blueberries so special, he said.
“If they go somewhere, bring our products with them,” Bridges said.
Wild blueberry growers in both Maine and eastern Canada opt to collect a tax to help with marketing efforts, and Bridges said he is hopeful that putting more money and effort in marketing will help the industry.
“We have some challenges,” he acknowledged. “But once we get used to the fact that it is a better fruit, we hope people will keep buying wild blueberries.”
According to McBrady, Mainers appreciate the wild blueberry, which she said remains very important to the state. It’s especially important in Washington County and Hancock County.
“These are places where the wild blueberry still provides jobs and opportunities,” she said. “It’s also a very symbolic and iconic crop in Maine. Blueberries were first harvested by native Americans, then by settlers. It’s been commercially harvested since the 1850s. There have been generations of Mainers who grew up raking in the summers. There’s a direct link between the history of Maine and this crop.”