A smaller blueberry crop could reduce the oversupply of berries, but the industry is facing several challenges. PHOTO BY JACK DODSON

Blueberry growers are looking at marketing for industry relief

COLUMBIA FALLS — As a blueberry season shortened by bad weather and financial issues comes to an end, industry experts said a smaller crop has the potential to reduce the oversupply of berries that has put pressure on growers.

Because fewer berries were harvested, growers believe the price per pound paid to farmers, which has been dropping, will stabilize in 2018.

“What we’re expecting is conjecture at this point. It should be a better price,” said David Yarborough, blueberry specialist with the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension.

But, he said, the oversupply won’t necessarily be fixed with one small season.

“We’ve got a lot of berries in storage,” he said. “They’ve been accumulating those berries for three years, so one year may not help.”

The prices won’t be settled until late in the year. Growers were given warning the market would be bad in 2017 and had time to make cost adjustments at the beginning of the season. Many didn’t harvest their crop this year, and others found ways to cut production costs.

Blueberry farmers who sell their crop to processors get paid a contract-based price per pound during each season. Then, at the end of the calendar year, processors set a final price based on the market and pay what’s left over. In recent years, the price has been low enough that some farmers have owed money at the end of the year instead of receiving a check.

“The value of the blueberries has gone down for the past three years, 15 cents per pound each year,” Yarborough said.

For small growers such as Marie and Dell Emerson, who manage Wild Blueberry Land in Columbia Falls, the best way to fight competition from high bush blueberries is to emphasize the benefits of Maine’s product — a fruit unique to this state and Canada.

High bush, cultivated berries are grown mostly outside of Maine and Canada. They’re larger berries and are produced in greater quantities than are low bush berries.

According to Yarborough, cultivated berry production rates are down for 2017, as well.

Low bush wild berries are native to Maine and eastern Canada, are higher in antioxidants and have a richer mix of flavors, according to the Wild Blueberry Association of North America’s website.

Dell said his company, which sells wild blueberries out of a light blue, dome-shaped building on the side of Route 1 in Washington County, fared well this season.

“For us personally it went pretty well,” he said. “But some of the small growers didn’t even harvest.”

He and Marie have focused on the idea of getting consumers to “take the wild pledge” in order to attract business. The couple started a nonprofit museum focused on the industry to help educate blueberry buyers about the product.

The project is called the Agricultural Wild Blueberry Heritage Center and Virtual Museum. It is still in development.

“If the Maine grower is at stake, that’s what everyone has to say,” Marie said, referring to the pledge to buy wild fruit. “We need to differentiate between these high bush cultivated berries and our special wild ones.”

Marie said the museum will have a website that’s designed to educate the public about the benefits of wild blueberries. She hopes it will help maintain a market for the product.

“The virtual museum will be online and go out to the whole world,” she said. “That’s going to help with marketing — people can click on and drill down and learn about blueberries.”

The museum will focus on six main areas, according to Marie, including the rare geology of Maine and the relationship between Native Americans and blueberries. The museum will also tell the stories of “heroes of the industry,” featuring growers, rakers and companies.

Marie said the idea for the museum first came up 25 years ago when she met Dell while interviewing him for her master’s project at the University of Maine.

“That was the beginning,” she said, “and we never let go of the sight of building this museum.”

Marie said things slowed down recently for them, so they began writing grants for the project. Eventually they secured a private donation and have been working with volunteer students and faculty from the University of Maine. Marie said they hope to break ground on the building in the spring.

Another example of marketing is that a new AA East Coast Hockey League team in Portland is seriously considering naming their club the “Wild Blueberries,” in a nod to the fruit’s relevance to the region and Maine’s prominence in the industry.

“Maine accounts for 10 percent of all blueberries grown in North America,” team officials wrote on their voting website, “and Coastal Maine boasts the largest production of blueberries.”

But Yarborough said fresh wild blueberries are only a small part of the market. He said the economic pressure coming from the market glut will have to be where the financial changes come from. He said smaller producers can get good revenue from fresh blueberries, but it’s a limited-volume market.

Some small growers are selling niche items such as vinegars and chutneys, according to Yarborough, but it’s difficult to switch from selling berries to processors.

“It’s not like everybody can just do that, and gear up for it in a year,” he said.

Instead, he said one strategy has been for growers to just opt out in 2017, letting the land go fallow.

“It’s a long-term process,” he said.

Jack Dodson
Jack Dodson began working for The Ellsworth American in mid-2017, and covers eastern Hancock and western Washington counties. He grew up in the Mid-coast region before living in New York City for five years, where he freelanced in documentary filmmaking and journalism. He is particularly interested in criminal justice, environment and immigration reporting.