FRANKLIN — Jack Schmelzer, a blueberry farmer, tried what he could to make his fields profitable.
He cultivated organic berries to get an organic certification and therefore a higher price. But he found the parameters set forth by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association were not cost-effective for blueberry farming.
He sold extra berries to a company that freezes them in mass quantities. He tried pick-your-own, allowing visitors to wander through his farm plucking berries, but “managing the people became unmanageable.”
“It just wasn’t enough to offset the expense and labor involved,” he said.
In 2007, he got a job as a truck driver to help pay his bills. Among other assignments, he drove a truck filled with frozen blueberries to a blueberry muffin maker in Missouri. He’d then bring a full truck of blueberry muffins back to Bangor. It was not the end of the blueberry industry he wanted to be in.
This year was worse than most in recent memory. Many growers in Hancock and Washington counties left portions or entire fields unraked as the price of berries plummeted. Schmelzer didn’t rake his berries this year.
A market glut, fueled in part by competition from high-bush blueberries, drove prices for blueberries so low that farmers were losing money on their operations.
Schmelzer has been on the same 15-acre plot since 2001. His barrens overlook the Mount Desert Narrows across rolling fields. He allowed trees and grass to grow along with berries. But a few years ago, he decided it was time to sell.
“I could see it was slipping,” he said of the market. “A good year of retail blueberry sales might be $15,000 … When you add in the amount of labor and other expenses, I might as well go work for Walmart.”
He never found an interested party — or at least one with enough money to purchase the property — so he’s pretty much given up trying to sell.
Schmelzer’s story highlights the challenges facing blueberry farmers after a particularly tough few seasons. The prices growers get for Maine’s low-bush, wild blueberries have decreased steadily for the past five years, according to Dave Yarborough, the wild blueberry specialist for the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension.
In 2012, he said, farmers were getting 76 cents per pound. In 2014, that number was 60 cents. Last year, it was 27 cents.
There’s been a bit of a turnaround in the market this year after bad weather and reduced operations shrank the yield across the state. Yarborough said some growers are receiving 35 cents this year. This is the first season in which the industry has had fewer frozen blueberries in storage than the year before.
But that 35-cent figure doesn’t mean the problem is solved. Yarborough said most growers make money on their fields only when the price exceeds 45 cents.
In mid-2017, the United States Department of Agriculture agreed to buy $10 million worth of blueberries to help ease the market glut.
As blueberry farmers settle in for winter, some are looking to shed their lands. The 2017 season brought prices so low it was difficult for growers to make a profit off their operations, according to industry experts and growers. Now, some are selling their land to get out of the blueberry business.
Marie Emerson, who runs the Columbia Falls-based Wild Blueberry Land with her husband, said three growers in one week told her they were trying to sell their land earlier this fall.
“Many growers just let the berries rot. I bet the natural wildlife really enjoyed this year,” Emerson said. “Many growers just simply stated it is over for the small grower.”
Some of those farmers, she continued, are hoping a large corporation will buy their land.
“The real issue, and what’s been happening,” Yarborough said, “is that some of the companies that were previously accepting berries have decided that they’re going to contract a bit and rely more on their own fields.”
That means larger producers have not been renewing contracts with smaller growers. These companies have the industrial machinery to process and freeze large quantities of berries. As a result, some smaller operators who had been supplying the big outfits have sold their lands or stopped cultivating blueberries.
Yarborough said he hasn’t heard of large-scale transfers of blueberry land. But he has seen some older farmers who were planning to sell decide to do so this year.
“If you can’t sell [blueberries] to a processor, what are you going to do with them?” Yarborough asked. “There’s only so much of a market for fresh berries … I think the major challenges are just being able to survive the lower prices and come out of it farming a little differently, a little more efficiently. But you still have to have that market for your berries.”