Wild blueberries are an iconic food in Maine. Despite the products’ rich flavor and known health benefits, though, the industry has struggled to make inroads, especially compared to the bigger, more ubiquitous cultivated blueberries, which are commonly found in grocery store produce aisles around the country.
For the wild blueberry growers, researchers and industry professionals that convened at Hollywood Casino in Bangor for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension’s Wild Blueberry Conference, many conversations centered around how to make wild blueberries stand out, especially compared to their low-bush counterparts, while keeping the crop efficient and competitive in light of the changing climate, pest and disease pressures.
Maine is the only state that commercially produces wild blueberries in the country. The crop has suffered from low yields in the past few years, though, and has struggled to contend with competition from less expensive Canadian-grown wild blueberries.
Then, there’s competition from cultivated blueberries. Eric Venturini, the recently-appointed executive director of the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine, explained that, according to the International Blueberry Organization, production of high-bush blueberries around the world is increasing. Perhaps more concerningly, China has been planting “cultivated low bush” blueberries. Though they are currently used primarily for ornamental purposes, some of those varieties hail from the U.S. Department of Agriculture low-bush repository.
Should that production scale up, Venturini explained, “That could make the campaign of cultivated versus wild more challenging.”
Venturini said that the industry needs to focus on human clinical trials because the health benefits are wild blueberries’ competitive advantage. Wild blueberries have long been thought of as a superfood, but have paled in trendiness compared to superfoods like acai and quinoa.
The Wild Blueberry Association of North America, or WBANA, has done just that. Todd Merrill, the private nonprofit trade group’s president and owner of Merrill Blueberry Farms in Ellsworth, explained that association will start marketing wild blueberries as the superfood of brain health. Merrill cited a study conducted in 2017 by the University of Reading showing the positive effects of wild blueberries on brain function, due in large part to the high concentration of anthocyanins.
“Brain health is a huge area,” Merrill said. “WBANA is [working on] making wild blueberries the number one food for brain health.” He said the association is working on marketing wild blueberries as “the tastiest way to feed your brain.”
Producers echoed these industry shifts. A panel of wild blueberry producers presented the marketing techniques they have personally implemented, whether at farmers markets or online products. One of the panelists, Nicolas Lindholm, owner of Blue Hill Berry Co. in Penobscot, said that he receives many online orders from health-conscious, smoothie-slurping consumers on the West Coast, inspired in part by the wild blueberry wellness proselytizing of “Medical Medium” Anthony Williams.
“I think the days of wild blueberries in just scones, muffins and pies are over,” Lindholm said.