August 14, 2018
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In 2017, Maine exported nearly 2 million pounds of blueberries to China. The trade disputes have changed that.

Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
In this Aug. 7, 2017, file photo, a girl holds a handful of wild blueberries picked near Sherman.
By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff
Updated:

Most of the news stories about farmers negatively affected by President Donald Trump’s trade disputes with China and other trading partners have been focused on big Midwestern producers of agricultural commodities such as soybeans and pork.

But here in Maine, growers of wild blueberries, a locally iconic but much smaller industry, have also felt the ripple effects of the tariffs. In 2017, the state exported nearly 2 million pounds of wild blueberries to China, according to Nancy McBrady, the executive director of the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine. So far this year, Maine has exported only 75,398 pounds of the fruit.

“We had really been seeing some positive movement, and this round of trade disputes has thrown some cold water on that,” she said Tuesday. “We’re not soybeans. We’re not pork producers from the midwest. [But] it is still a sizeable market and one that we had hoped to grow. This escalating trade war is unfortunate.”

After the president increased tariffs, or import taxes, on billions of dollars in Chinese goods in a dispute over Beijing’s high-tech industrial policies, China retaliated with duties on American commodities. On Tuesday, the United States Department of Agriculture announced a $12 billion plan to assist farmers who have been hurt in the trade disputes.

According to the Associated Press, the aid will focus on midwest soybean producers and others targeted by retaliatory measures, and will include direct assistance for farmers, purchases of excess crops and trade promotion activities aimed at building new export markets. Officials from the USDA said that the payments would help soybean producers, along with producers of sorghum, corn, wheat, cotton, dairy and hogs. McBrady said she did not have information yet about whether some payments would find their way to Maine blueberry growers.

“It’s really too soon to tell,” she said.

Experts from another major Maine agricultural industry also are paying close attention to what is going on nationally and internationally. Don Flannery, the executive director of the Maine Potato Board, said Maine potatoes are generally sold nationally or to Canada.

“Right now, directly, we’re not seeing an impact,” he said. “But we’re watching with heightened interest as to what’s going to happen, and how it all relates.”

Even without a direct impact to Maine, he expects growers here will be affected by increased costs of doing business with suppliers and equipment dealers. Additionally, he said Idaho and other major potato-growing states in the Pacific northwest have a huge export market that has been experiencing a lot of growth in countries such as China and Taiwan.

“If those potatoes no longer have a market outside the country, they’ll have to find a market somewhere else,” he said. Maine growers could be affected if the U.S. and Canadian markets are flooded with potatoes. “In the potato industry as a whole, we need trade agreements to do business … having trade agreements is extremely important. And we believe that history has shown we’ve had some pretty good agreements with potatoes.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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