Maine wild blueberry season is short, falling at the end of the summer for less than two months. It’s an intense burst of activity in which blueberry rakers and mechanical harvesters dot the rough, rocky barrens.
But even in the depths of winter, when temperatures plunge and snow blankets the wild blueberry fields, growers are focused and strategizing on the year ahead. That focus has been razor-sharp and some dramatic measures taken as the per-pound price for the fruit steadily dropped from 76 cents in 2012 to 60 cents in 2014, 27 cents in 2016, according to David Yarborough, the longtime wild blueberry specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
In 2017, the per-pound price crept back up slightly. Yarborough said official numbers haven’t been released but some growers made as much as 35 cents per pound.
Last year, many Maine blueberry growers scaled back their operations or opted not to harvest their berries at all. A combination of wet weather during pollination in the spring and dry weather during the early summer damaged the emerging crop. But the market also was adjusting to a global oversupply of fruit.
The glut is due in part to a cultivated strain of blueberries grown on a larger scale on farms across North America from New Jersey to Washington state. Those high-bush berries are plumper and generally sold and promoted as a fresh fruit in supermarkets nationwide.
Experts agree that the increase in the global supply of both low-bush and high-bush berries has outpaced consumer demand and left businesses with a fruit surplus.
“It’s a question of supply and demand,” said Mark Scarano, of Blue-Zee Farm in Penobscot.
“Low prices reflect high volumes without sufficient consumer demand…,” he observed. “As more farms turn to organic production, sales will depend on finding markets outside the state. This creates many logistical and sales challenges.”
The native low-bush blueberries growing in Maine and Canada are three to four times smaller and are mostly sold frozen. Their advocates argue that they are richer in both health benefits and flavor.
Yarborough said the stronger flavor is due to a greater mix of genetic material in the plant species.
“There’s a lot more genetic variation, so there will be a lot more genetic diversity in the fruit,” he said, comparing the low- and high-bush fruit.
That can be a good and bad thing, according to Yarborough, but it leads to a greater depth in the flavors. Maine’s low-bush berries, he added, pack higher levels of antioxidants.
In Penobscot, Blue Hill Berry Co. co-owner Nicolas Lindholm says those health benefits have helped grow his organic blueberry business. Unlike many growers in Hancock County, he has spent years developing his own market and selling directly to consumers.
In Maine, other medium and small-sized farms contract with larger companies that then freeze their produce. That makes them more at risk to market fluctuations.
Lindholm said his company wasn’t totally immune to bad seasons — the rough weather in 2017 hurt his harvest — but having a customer base has helped him maintain profits from year to year.
“Every berry we’re harvesting, we already have a market for,” he said, “but it’s a lot of legwork.”
He estimated that about 50 percent of his time is spent on marketing, and most of their sales happen by phone or online.
Other growers, he said, have struggled to make a profit in recent years.
“Basically the trend of the last 10 years is to get big or to get out,” he said.
Much of Maine’s wild blueberry market revolves around frozen fruit. The berries served as ingredients in many packaged food products that can be purchased in stores; these berries are often produced en masse by companies like Wyman’s of Maine and Canada’s Oxford Frozen Foods.
In the past, the small growers have supplied their crop to larger companies, but the downward price spiral has eroded the benefit of that arrangement.
For Scarano, the global market for fresh blueberries — like lobster — provides an opportunity. As visitors pour into Maine each summer, they taste and learn about the differences between the low- and high-bush varieties. When they go home, he sees the demand for Maine’s wild berries will grow.
“I think there should be more emphasis on educating folks on these differences,” he said, “and why this Maine wild crop is part of the natural landscape and is just as unique as the other more familiar icons of Maine such as lobsters and potatoes.”
Educating growers and the public about Maine’s wild blueberries has been Yarborough’s mission for 40 years. A University of Maine professor of horticulture and Cooperative Extension blueberry specialist, the scientist will officially retire on April 19. He plans to devote his time to hiking and writing about, well, blueberries.
In preparation, Yarborough has been working with UMaine officials to choose his successor and will help train that person for about a year.
During his lengthy tenure, the horticulture professor has seen Maine’s blueberry industry struggle due to poor weather conditions, the collapse of bee colonies and other uncontrollable events. He’s watched machines replace hand rakers, and seen growers and consumers gain a greater understanding of the low-bush berry’s health benefits.
Through it all, Yarborough learned a measured optimism. He’s optimistic and foresees the global market eventually turning around, but says it won’t happen overnight.
“As with any agricultural enterprise, there are booms and busts, ups and downs, but if we can find some good markets, even overseas markets and get some consumer demands, things will turn around,” he said.