ELLSWORTH — The 2018 blueberry harvest is under way in Downeast Maine. Early indications point to good harvest conditions, although the overall market remains diminished.
At the Lynch Hill Farms fields near Columbia Falls, harvesting began on Aug. 1.
“We were already starting to see a little strain on the berries because of the heat,” said Manager Courtney Hammond.
Hammond said he was expecting to harvest 120 acres total between Lynch Hill Farms and smaller farms that contract out to him.
At the Blue Hill Berry Company in Penobscot, owner Nicolas Lindholm said the condition of the berries being harvested was good.
“Personally, I didn’t see much frost. I’m expecting to match last year’s harvest if not exceed it a bit,” said Lindholm. “We had a very strong spring weatherwise: good pollination conditions.”
At the Lynch Hill Farms fields, Hammond also said he had not seen much “mummy berry,” a fungal pathogen that destroys blueberries.
This past spring did see the effects of frost, although that appears more prevalent farther north of Washington and Hancock Counties, as well as in Canada.
While conditions for harvesting remain OK this year, the overall market glut of blueberries which has driven down prices remains. In 2014, blueberry production reached a high of slightly over 101.4 million pounds. Sales prices that year were 60 cents per pound. In 2016, the blueberry harvest in Maine produced 101.3 million pounds, but prices dropped to 27 cents per pound. Last year, the Maine harvest was reduced to 67.8 million pounds, with prices at 26 cents per pound. This drop was linked to an oversaturated market.
With the large harvests, competition from a robust Canadian market, and an influx of high-bush blueberries grown worldwide year round, supply greatly outpaced demand.
To alleviate this, the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine this summer asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to buy large quantities of frozen blueberry stock that remain in freezers across the state.
Nancy McBrady, executive director of the Wild Blueberry Commission, said that the USDA will be purchasing 8.57 million pounds of frozen blueberries, at a cost of $9.36 million dollars.
“This is around the number the growers and freezers requested,” said McBrady. “The idea is that this will help the market settle.”
McBrady also noted that the buy-back would be of frozen blueberries from 2016 and 2017 that remain in freezers. The blueberries purchased by the USDA will be distributed to school lunch programs, food banks and social service agencies.
Overall, McBrady expected similar numbers from the 2018 harvest in terms of tonnage and price, although the hope is that the latest round of USDA buy-backs will alleviate the backlog and help prices increase.
In Harrington, at the Blueberry Harvest School operated by the non-profit Mano en Mano, Executive Director Ian Yaffe said that he was expecting slightly more students than in 2017, but fewer overall than in years past. Yaffe said that Mano en Mano, which provides educational services to children of migrant agricultural workers, had 42 students in the first week of August, and was expecting that number to increase.
At the Rakers’ Center, an annual pop-up resource for workers that operates out of Narragaugus High School in Harrington, Jorge Acero also noted that the number of workers in the area was similar to last year.
“Passamaquoddy Wild Blueberry is harvesting this year, which they didn’t in 2017,” said Acero. “So there might be slightly more workers, but not much different from last year.”
Acero, who is a state migrant and seasonal farm worker monitor and advocate with the Maine Department of Labor, said he had not heard of any increased Immigration and Customs Enforcement presence in the area.
“I’ve heard about the checkpoints near Bangor, but nothing out here,” he said.