Fear of losing blueberry growers as prices drop, crop soars

Members of Maine's agriculture industry and state government fear the possibility of losing blueberry growers due to a depression in prices that has made growing the beloved crop a less reliable way to make a living.

Wild blueberries are a Maine tradition on par with lobsters and lighthouses, but prices to farmers have plunged from nearly a dollar a pound (0.45 kilogram) in 2011 to around 25 to 30 cents per pound (0.45 kilogram) last year. The number of farmers and acreages is holding steady, but other measures show a decline in effort on farms, state officials said.

For example, bees are imported to Maine to pollinate blueberry fields, and the number of beehives coming into the state declined by about 20 percent from 2015 to 2016, said David Yarborough, a horticulture professor at the University of Maine.

Industry members said they are likely looking at another year of low prices, and some farmers are using less of their fields in anticipation of a tough summer.

"These are challenging times for the blueberry industry," said Homer Woodward, vice president of Jasper Wyman & Son, one of the Maine blueberry industry's major players. "Everyone is trying to rethink their farm management plan."

Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, has submitted a state budget proposal that would use $2.5 million in state money to market agricultural products such as blueberries. He and others have said the state needs to find new buyers for the blueberries to try to spur demand and buoy prices. State officials say wild blueberry growers in Washington and Hancock counties, the heart of blueberry country, are seeing annual losses of $70 million.

One of the reasons for the drop in prices and profits is a multi-year boom in harvest that has led to surplus. The U.S. Department of Agriculture stepped in last year and allotted up to $13 million to buy surplus Maine blueberries and help stabilize prices. But excess supply remains.

Another problem is that Canada also produces wild blueberries and it's difficult for Maine companies to compete with the country economically because of the weak Canadian dollar.

Wild blueberries are not as common in stores as the fatter cultivated blueberries, but fans of the fruit tout its unique flavor profile and higher level of antioxidants. About 99 percent of the crop is frozen, and it is widely used as a food ingredient, such as in smoothies.

Canada and Maine, the U.S.'s sole significant wild blueberry state, have both churned out high levels of the crop in recent years, Yarborough said.

The two jurisdictions produced 400 million pounds (181.44 million kilograms) of wild blueberries last year, Yarborough said. The norm is around 250 million pounds (113.4 million kilograms), he said. Regardless of the size of this summer's crop, prices are unlikely to surge back to higher levels quickly, Yarborough added.

"This particular situation isn't going to resolve itself in a year or two, it might take longer," he said.

The drop in prices to farmers hasn't trickled down to retail customers yet, except in the form of occasional sales and coupons, Woodward said. He said growers and processors are hoping the state's push to more aggressively market the blueberries will attract new interest outside the state.

State Agriculture Commissioner Walt Whitcomb said the state hopes to market blueberries more aggressively overseas and increase efforts to get Maine blueberries into more U.S. schools. The school push has yielded some results, as more Maine blueberries were sold to schools in April than in all of 2016.

Nancy McBrady, executive director of the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine, said new consumers are what the Maine blueberry industry needs the most.

"There is a real possibility that some growers might exit the business entirely," she said, "which is a real tragedy because this is a 150-year-old industry in the state."