DEBLOIS, Maine — In the era of superfoods, Maine blueberries aren’t so super.
The Maine wild blueberry industry harvests one of the most beloved fruit crops in New England, but it’s locked in a downward skid in a time when other nutrition-packed foods, from acai to quinoa, dominate the conversation about how to eat. And questions linger about when, and if, the berry will be able to make a comeback.
The little blueberries are touted by health food bloggers and natural food stores because of their hefty dose of antioxidants. They’re also deeply ingrained in the culture of New England, and they were the inspiration for the beloved 1948 children’s book “Blueberries for Sal.” But the industry that picks and sells them is dealing with a long-term price drop, drought, freezes, diseases and foreign competition, and farmers are looking at a second consecutive year of reduced crop size.
At Beech Hill Blueberry Farm in Rockport, this year’s harvest was off by about 50 percent, said Ian Stewart, who runs the land trust that manages the farm.
“Our year was a little underwhelming. There was a lot of drought. There was a freeze at a bad time,” Stewart said. “We’re hoping it’s a blip. We’ll see.”
North America’s wild blueberry industry exists only in Maine and Atlantic Canada, and an oversupply of berries in both places caused prices to harvesters to plummet around 2015. Recent years have brought new challenges, such as particularly bad spells of mummy berry disease, a fungal pathogen, and difficulty in opening up new markets.
The blueberries grow wild, as the name indicates, in fields called “blueberry barrens” that stretch to the horizon in Maine’s rural Down East region. While the plumper cultivated blueberries harvested in states like New Jersey are planted and grown as crops, harvesters of wild blueberries tend to a naturally occurring fruit and pick it by hand and with machinery.
Woes in the industry have caused some growers to scale back operations in Maine. Harvesters collected a little less than 68 million pounds of wild blueberries in the state in 2017, which was the lowest total since 2005 and more than 33 million pounds less than 2016. Last year’s price of 26 cents per pound to farmers was also the lowest since 1985, and was more in line with the kind of prices farmers saw in the early 1970s than in the modern era.