HARRINGTON — Courtney Hammond’s days can start as early as 3:45 a.m. In the weeks leading up to Maine’s wild blueberry harvest, which just began, Hammond is a one-man show spraying his family’s blueberry fields in the pre-dawn hours before the winds kick in.
During the season, he puts in 12-hour days on the land that has belonged to the Hammonds for more than 50 years. He can’t afford to hire a full-time crew to help him maintain the fields. In fact, Lynch Hill Farms hasn’t made a profit from blueberries in five years. The farm does make money raising cranberries.
“I don’t know anyone who can make a living on wild blueberries anymore,” Hammond said in late July.
Like many small wild blueberry growers in Washington County, where much of Maine’s wild blueberry industry is concentrated, Lynch Hill Farms has supplied and relied on larger growers to process and sell its fruit. But as more countries with favorable growing conditions have joined the market, global prices for the berries have fluctuated, dropping from a high of 90 cents to 25 cents per pound — a 72 percent decline — over the last decade. Last year’s wild blueberry harvest fetched 46 cents per pound, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
While the price per pound jumped from 25 cents in 2017 to 46 cents in 2018, some small wild blueberry growers actually had ceased production. In Maine, the total number of growers dropped from 510 to 485 in 2017, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported.
With international prices unlikely to rise, Hammond and other Washington County growers are moving forward with an initiative to put their industry on the global map as a National Heritage Area. Designated by Congress, such areas are deemed nationally important landscapes because of their natural, cultural and historic assets.
National Heritage Areas are “places where historic, cultural, and natural resources combine to form cohesive, nationally important landscapes,” according to the U.S. National Park Service.
Such a designation would provide Washington County growers with a powerful tool to better highlight and promote their industry, products and century-old history and lure visitors to their region beyond Bar Harbor.
Marie Emerson co-owns Wecogus Wild Blueberry Farm in Addison. She and her husband, Dell, created and run Wild Blueberry Land, the retail store housed in a bright blue geodesic dome built by the Emersons on U.S. Route 1 in Columbia Falls. The couple sell freshly harvested blueberries and numerous value-added blueberry products.
Emerson is among half a dozen or so small growers who are pursuing the federal National Heritage Area designation to better market their low-bush fruit and scenic region. Educating visitors about the difference between wild and cultivated blueberries is key to distinguishing their industry from competing producers.
At Wild Blueberry Land, Emerson and staff encourage customers to “Take the WILD Pledge,” and they always use the word “wild” when referencing the low-bush variety of blueberries.
“I don’t see a way forward,” she said early last month, “unless we can differentiate and show the biodiversity and the uniqueness and the rareness and really look at it as a functional food.”
On July 25, Emerson, Hammond and about half a dozen other Washington County growers met in Machias, where they outlined and discussed the initiative with other potential stakeholders including representatives from Jasper Wyman & Son and Cherryfield Foods processors, the U.S. Department of Interior, the Maine Blueberry Commission and the offices of U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King.
Patricia Kontur, interim executive director of the Wild Blueberry Commission, said it remains to be seen whether such a designation would aid the struggling industry. The state industry-funded group coordinates promotion, policy, research development of the fruit.
“There are a number of details to work out and the designation will take a significant amount of time to put into place,” she said last week.
The July meeting’s main aim was to gauge and galvanize support for the National Heritage Area designation and get the ball rolling in a process that could take several years, would require an act of Congress and has an uncertain outcome.
Over more than 30 years, Congress has established 55 NHAs ranging from New York’s Niagara Falls and Hudson River Valley to Muscle Shoals in northwestern Alabama to the Appalachian Forest in West Virginia. The sites operate as partnerships between the National Park Service, states and local communities.
While such a designation would highlight Maine’s wild blueberries and its easternmost region, Hammond sees the NHA designation as a useful tool, but not the solution to reversing the small growers’ plight or preserving the industry that dates back to the Civil War when the berries were canned and shipped to Union troops.
Hammond said more drastic action, possibly imposing tariffs, is needed to keep family-run blueberry farms from going under.
“[The NHA] won’t do anything to protect the blueberry industry,” he said. “This will be more to memorialize an industry that used to be.”