ELLSWORTH — The future of Maine’s $250-million wild blueberry industry may very well lie in the hands — and mouths — of schoolchildren across America.
Faced with freezers full of wild blueberries from last season, falling prices, and ever increasing competition from cultivated, or high bush, blueberries, growers in Maine are struggling to make money and maintain market share.
One major grower, Jasper Wyman & Son, has said it is taking some fields out of cultivation due to the low price the industry is getting for its wild blueberries and because fields are yielding more fruit as a result of improved growing practices.
On the promising side, said Nancy McBrady, executive director of the Maine Wild Blueberry Commission, is a new initiative to have more schools buy wild blueberries.
“We sold more wild blueberries to schools in April 2017 than in all of 2016 combined,” McBrady said. “We are onto something.”
She said the lower prices being paid for Maine wild blueberries — virtually all of which are sold frozen — is due to an oversupply plus competition from the larger cultivated blueberries.
“Also, the strong U.S. dollar and the weak Canadian dollar affects price as well,” McBrady said. “People are buying in Canada since it’s cheaper.”
The Canadian dollar as of May 5 was worth 73 cents against the U.S. dollar. Wild blueberries only can be found in Maine and Eastern Canada.
“This confluence of events makes it a very tough situation for the Maine wild blueberry industry,” McBrady said.
She said the new concerted effort to sell wild blueberries to more schools in the United States kicked off in March of this year.
“The cool thing is we went from 13 states to 19 states buying wild blueberries,” McBrady said. “We’re having two more rounds this year, so we’re hoping to grow even more.”
The 13 states that bought Maine wild blueberries in 2016 were: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Maine, Missouri, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Vermont.
The 19 states that have bought the berries in 2017 so far include: Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Vermont and Washington.
McBrady said the school program only includes U.S. wild blueberries, all of which grow in Maine.