ELLSWORTH — Wild blueberry harvest season is upon us — and it is about 8 to 12 days ahead of schedule, said Lily Calderwood, Cooperative Extension wild blueberry specialist and assistant professor of horticulture at the University of Maine.
With this season’s harvest comes a more optimistic outlook compared to the difficult season that plagued last year, which was caused in part by drought conditions the state has experienced for the last five years.
Despite a better yield predicted, the warming climate has growers, processors and scientists working to mitigate the impacts of climate change on the wild blueberry harvest, which largely includes connecting small- and large-scale growers to irrigation systems. Doing so may be especially pertinent following a study that found Downeast blueberry fields are warming slightly faster than the rest of the state.
Results published in a June 5 Associated Press article found that the average temperature of the state increased by 1.98 degrees Fahrenheit and Downeast blueberry barrens increased by 2.34 degrees Fahrenheit over a 40-year period.
“I think more research needs to be done on the topic,” Calderwood, who was a collaborator for the study, told The American. “We are experiencing climate change challenges as every crop is in the world.”
She estimated that growers would likely not produce 100 million pounds this season — the state’s all-time high seen yearly from 2014 to 2016 — but it would be better than the 50 million pounds grown last year.
While the state — and Downeast region — have experienced significant rain storms this summer, the intense storms that dropped several inches of rain in a matter of hours are not necessarily helpful for the blueberry crop.
“A low trickle of water every week throughout the season is ideal,” Calderwood said. That is about an inch of rain per week and two to three wet days per week.
To adapt to a changing climate, “We are doing research and education in mulching,” Calderwood said. “That is a way to hold moisture in the soil for longer periods of time.”
Growers and scientists are also looking to irrigation, a system typically in place for large-scale growers, but often too expensive for smaller-scale growers to invest in.
“Overall, the crop looks good this year,” Calderwood summarized, noting that the national demand for wild blueberries in on the rise. “I think people are optimistic.”
The Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine is also looking to create irrigation opportunities for growers, said Executive Director Eric Venturini.
As drought conditions continue to affect the blueberry harvest, “We can largely mitigate the effects of that drought through irrigation,” he said.
Venturini also expressed optimism for the season.
“Wild blueberries have been a part of this state’s culture and heritage and harvest for thousands of years and they will be years in the future as well,” he said. “Without a doubt.”
Another area for optimism, he said, is an upcoming event put on by the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine, the Wild Blueberry Weekend, held statewide Aug. 7 and 8.
On Saturday, Aug. 7, Maine restaurants, breweries and establishments will hold themed events. The next day, participating farms will open to the public to “come and experience what a Maine wild blueberry farm is all about,” Venturini said. Opportunities include learning to hand rake berries and going on guided tours to see harvests in action. More information can be found on www.wildblueberryweekend.com.
Tony Shurman, president and chief executive officer of Jasper Wyman & Son in Milbridge, also shared a sense of optimism, noting the demand on the industry.
“The crop potential looks good in most regions. We anticipate that we’ll have a better than average crop,” he said. “We certainly need it as freezers are empty and demand continues to be robust.”
To confront issues brought on by climate change, he reports that the company will continue to invest in irrigation systems and using stable water sources. He said the company is also focused on growing plants that are healthy enough to adapt to a climate with more variability.
“Certainly, lack of precipitation is a major concern,” he said.
For smaller growers up against these concerns, “We’re very supportive of programs that can help smaller growers in the industry to be able to invest in irrigation as well,” he said. “It is quite expensive.”
In other blueberry news shared in a July 16 press release, Shurman announced Wyman’s acquisition of Ellsworth-based Allen’s Blueberry Freezer.
The 2,800 acres of wild blueberry lands purchased from Allen’s bring Wyman’s total acreage in Maine to about 10,000 acres, all located in the Downeast region. Other assets of the sale include additional freezing capacity and 50,000 square feet of cold storage.