Workers rake blueberries in a field in Washington County. ELLSWORTH AMERICAN PHOTO BY JOHANNA S. BILLINGS

USDA denies application for aid for blueberry growers



CHERRYFIELD Maine agriculture officials say they are disappointed in a federal decision to exclude wild blueberries from a program that would provide direct payments to struggling growers.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture denied an application from the Maine Department of Agriculture and Forestry to include wild blueberries in the Market Facilitation Program which, according to the USDA website, provides assistance to those directly affected by “unjustified foreign retaliatory tariffs.”

“The recent USDA decision not to include wild blueberries in the MFP program which pays growers directly is highly disappointing,” said Amanda E. Beal, commissioner of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

Wild blueberries are not included in the Market Facilitation Program, said Bill Northey, undersecretary of farm production and conservation, in a letter to Beal dated Aug. 14. However, they are included in the Food Purchase and Distribution Program operated by USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Service. The program purchases blueberries for distribution to food banks, schools and other nutrition programs.

“This program will remove excess supply and allow the market to more quickly adjust to the current trade environment,” the letter says.

“The USDA’s reasoning that wild blueberries are included in other assistance programs misses the important point that those other programs do not provide direct relief to growers themselves,” Beal said.

In addition, other fruits, such as cranberries, have benefited from both programs.

Nancy McBrady, director of the Bureau of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources, which operates as a part of the state Department of Agriculture, said officials sought the federal Market Facilitation Program specifically because it provides payments to growers.

“By not having this opportunity, we remain in the same situation,” she said. The buying program offered more help to processors than to growers.

State officials are looking for other programs that would help blueberry growers, McBrady said.

“We believe that wild blueberry growers deserve the same direct payments approved for sweet cherry, cranberry and grape growers,” Beal said.

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