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Blueberry crop could repeat 2021’s bounty



By Tim Cebula and Peggy Grodinsky

Portland Press Herald

MILBRIDGE — Maine’s wild blueberry crop rebounded from a couple of devastating years to produce a banner yield last season, just as freezers were emptying of the fruit, driving up the price.

And experts say, if the weather cooperates in the coming months, this summer is poised to be another bountiful one.

The U.S Department of Agriculture released a report Monday with figures from the 2021 season that corroborate what growers knew last fall, that prime weather conditions aided in a particularly good production year, especially in contrast to the previous one. The yield of 105 million pounds was up 122 percent from 2020, when drought conditions were frequent.

“The magic last year was June,” said wild blueberry specialist David Yarborough, a University of Maine professor emeritus of horticulture. “It rained a lot, and it rained at the perfect time. That was good for that year’s crop and also good for this year’s crop.”

Yarborough explained that wild blueberries run on two-year cycles, so they need two consecutive years of good rain along with good pollination weather – warm, calm-winded, sunny days when the blueberries are in bloom – for them to flourish.

Bruce Hall, agronomist for Wyman’s, one of the state’s largest wild blueberry growers, said the Milbridge-based company harvested nearly twice as much last year as in 2020, calling it an “above average” year.

The price of the crop can fluctuate significantly depending on supply and demand. Demand was high in 2021, Yarborough said, as people looked for healthy foods during the pandemic. “If you search online for healthy foods — what are the 10 healthiest foods? — blueberries pop right up at the top.”

Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

At the same time, supply was low because of poor yields in 2019 and 2020. The wild blueberry crop, almost all of which is grown in Maine, is often frozen, and can remain in freezers for up to three years. But as freezers emptied of excess supply, the price paid to farmers per pound improved, pushing up the value of the entire crop. Several years ago, the price per pound to farmers hovered around 20 cents, Yarborough said. Last year, it was 77.7 cents per pound. The total value of the 2021 yield was $80.3 million, nearly three times as much as in 2020, according to the USDA.

“Our harvest (last year) was definitely up over 2020,” said Ron Howard, farm manager for Brodis Blueberries in Hope. Howard estimated that Brodis harvested 30 percent more blueberries last year than in 2020. He was careful to point out that the year-to-year jump comes partly because the drought-cursed 2020 season was so bad.

Yarborough agreed, noting that 2021’s harvest of 105 million pounds will necessarily seem massive compared with the puny 47 million pounds harvested in 2020. He said the 2020 season was “a disaster” because of drought and a late spring frost that hit while the blueberry bushes were blossoming.

Ben Perrin, owner of Burke Hill Farm in Cherryfield, said that 2019 and 2020 “were pretty much the worst years ever for wild blueberry farming in Maine.” As for last year, Perrin said Burke Hill had a “pretty average” 2021 harvest.

At Ridgeberry Farm in Appleton, farm manager Timothy Davis said his 2021 harvest “wasn’t the best, but it wasn’t the worst.” Davis said Ridgeberry’s 2020 blueberry harvest was actually bigger than its 2021 crop, which he put at between 250,000 to 350,000 pounds.

Davis said Ridgeberry saw some dry weather during pollination times last year, which was followed by rain that caused water damage to the crop.

While it’s too early to know for sure, Davis said Ridegberry’s blueberry crop appears poised for a strong season this year. “I’m looking at the blossoms right now, and it looks phenomenal. We’re very encouraged by how things are looking,” he said.

Perrin said at this stage, the Burke Hill crop also is showing signs of promise, though weather over the next month or so will set the crop’s true trajectory. “I’m seeing good buds,” Perrin said. “Good buds are a good sign.”

“Most people I’ve talked to this year say it looks like a really good crop this year as well,” Yarborough said. “If we have good pollination weather and we maintain that moisture throughout the summer, we could equal or better what we had last year.”

Staff

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