ELLSWORTH— As wild blueberry barrens change from lush green to deep red, growers and processors can reflect on the recent season. This year, the state experienced two weatherrelated extremes: frosts in May and June followed by the statewide drought. As a result, it has been a difficult year for the wild blueberry, with a significantly lower crop yield to show for it.
“The five-year crop production average in Maine is 83.6 million pounds,” according to a statement from the Wild Blueberry Association of North America. “While exact totals for 2020 are not in yet, all signs point to a crop that could be up to 50 percent less than what was expected in May.”
“This has been a challenging year for all of Maine’s 485 wild blueberry growers,” Lily Calderwood, the Cooperative Extension wild blueberry specialist and assistant professor of horticulture at the University of Maine, said Sept. 11. “Many farmers were hit by three frosts during crop bloom and from then to now we have been dealing with a severe drought.”
The genetic diversity of wild blueberry plants helped some.
“Some plants like to bloom early, others bloom a little later, which means that some blossoms survived the late May and early June frosts, and some plants were more resilient to the drought than others,” Calderwood noted.
The U.S. Drought Monitor, an interactive map on the website drought.gov, provides weekly updates on drought conditions throughout the state. Levels of drought are categorized on a scale from D0 to D4, with D0 indicating “abnormally dry” conditions and D4 signaling “exceptional drought.” As of Sept. 29, nearly 77 percent of the state had been categorized as D2, or experiencing “severe drought.” Approximately seven percent of the state, comprised of areas in southern Maine and Aroostook County, are currently labeled as D3, which is “extreme drought.”
“Mother Nature is having a bad spell,” says Albert Lounder, owner of Lounder Blueberries on the Bucksport Road in Ellsworth. Lounder has owned his business for about 30 years and he reports the weather conditions have been a challenge the last three years. Lounder explained that plants require an inch of water per week to adequately grow blueberries. Without an irrigation system, “we all depend on the weather,” he says.
The season was “definitely affected,” by the extreme weather conditions, said Carol Varin of Beddington Ridge Farm in Beddington. As a result, she has seen a lower yield and poor berry quality, with berries turning out smaller and more shriveled.
The farm sells most of its berries fresh and does not typically freeze much of the crop, Varin says, but the amount frozen this year was even smaller than usual. “[We] couldn’t get ahead,” she adds.
Varin notes that the farm was not heavily affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the “pick-your-own” berry service was not offered this year as a result. Pick-your-own does not account for a high percentage of the farm’s sales during a typical year.
After a difficult season, some farms in the state received a boost in the form of federal grant funding. According to a statement released by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development, the Trump Administration has invested $2.19 million “to assist 11 Maine farms and agribusinesses with value-added activities.” One of the grant recipients, Passamaquoddy Wild Blueberry Company in Columbia Falls, has been issued a grant of $250,000 “to expand the production, marketing and sales of frozen, branded blueberries,” the statement reads.
While the season’s yield may have been low, consumer demand is strong, according to the Wild Blueberry Association of North America, and there’s hope for next year.
“The 2021 crop can rebound,” weather-permitting, “with good snowfall this winter, a warm spring and reliable rainfall in the summer.”