Maine's wild blueberry growers are launching an aggressive marketing campaign to promote the fruit. FILE PHOTO

Blueberry growers build demand in the face of increasing supply

ELLSWORTH — Maine’s 150-year-old wild blueberry industry is working to build demand for the state’s signature fruit.

Growers are in a difficult situation due to a combination of factors, including a significant growth in cultivated blueberry production, several years of bumper wild blueberry crops in Maine and Canada and a weak Canadian dollar that is giving Canadian wild blueberries a price advantage.

In response, Maine’s growers have launched a multi-tiered counteroffensive, which includes a more aggressive marketing campaign targeting consumers, food manufacturers and food service channels and a national public school food service initiative.

At the same time, with support from Maine’s congressional delegation and Maine Governor Paul LePage, the industry will receive up to $10 million for a “Bonus Buy” from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which was approved this month.

The program is designed to support American agriculture and encourage domestic consumption by purchasing products and diverting them to programs such as the Child and Adult Care Food Program. The USDA program is not funded through taxpayer dollars.

“This investment to alleviate the supply issue, combined with the industry’s efforts to boost demand, will help create new opportunities for wild blueberry growers and support a bright future for this unique Maine crop,” said Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and Reps. Chellie Pingree and Bruce Poliquin in a joint statement.

“Maine’s wild blueberry growers appreciate the USDA’s support and are optimistic about the future of the industry,” said Nancy McBrady, executive director of the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine.

The Bonus Buy helps to lessen the surplus and can help stabilize prices, she added.

“Maine wild blueberry growers are a resilient group, but global supply and pricing pressures are seriously impacting our business today,” said Roy Allen, a fourth-generation wild blueberry grower and processor in Ellsworth. “The Bonus Buy will help alleviate some short-term pressures while we pursue a more aggressive long-term strategy.”

A differentiation strategy

The wild blueberry industry’s primary marketing strategy is to educate consumers about the power of wild foods and the significant advantages of wild over cultivated blueberries.

“Wild blueberries have more genetic diversity, a unique origin story, they deliver two times the antioxidants, more fiber, and have a more intense flavor than the watery cultivated ones,” McBrady said. “We also conducted consumer research that showed that once people understand the taste, health and ‘real foods’ advantages of wild blueberries, they are more likely to purchase them.

“It is our job to convey this powerful information to food manufactures and food service companies so that they incorporate wild blueberries into new products that consumers will enjoy.”

Kashi’s Wild Blueberry Waffles, Panera’s Wild Blueberry Scone, Stonyfield’s Wild Blueberry Yogurt, and Clif’s Wild Blueberry Almond Bar are a few examples of products now featuring and stating wild blueberries on their packaging.

The campaign also positions frozen wild blueberries as a leading superfruit ingredient in a growing smoothie craze, which constitutes the most significant way Americans consume frozen fruit.

According to the Dole Food Co., home smoothie consumption accounted for 21 percent of all U.S. retail frozen fruit sales in 2006, and increased to 60 percent by 2014.

Results from the wild blueberry campaign include:

  • Website traffic expanded fourfold since 2013. Last year, received over 1 million visits, up from 250,000 in 2013.
  • Mentions in national mainstream media outlets nearly tripled, with 2,624 mentions in 2015 to 6,228 in 2016, with a total potential reach of 4.8 billion impressions in 2016
  • Facebook likes have increased sixfold, from 50,000 in 2013 to 322,000 today.
  • In early 2017, the industry launched a national school food service program aimed at increasing wild blueberry sales in public schools. Preliminary estimates show that in June 2017, wild blueberry sales exceeded 2.25 million pounds in 22 states (up from 1.18 million pounds in only 13 states for all of 2016).
  • A significant increase in published scientific studies now documents the health benefits of wild blueberries. In 1998, five studies were published compared to 150 studies published in 2015. Many of these studies reveal groundbreaking science about brain health, gut health, disease fighting properties and antioxidant capacity of wild blueberries.

“We have seen that when consumers and food manufacturers understand the difference between wild and cultivated blueberries, they almost always opt for wild because it offers a more delicious taste and denser nutritional value,” McBrady said. “Through our commitment to better and greater outreach to key customer groups, I’m confident that Maine’s wild blueberry industry has a bright future.”