I would like to recount my memories of a meeting among the Wild Blueberry IQF processors I attended in Ellsworth in 2011. There are a limited number of people in this group, so they fit around a table for 24, with room to spare.
There was one older man at the table who spoke out for the blueberry farmers, saying those at the table needed to recognize their economic strength and responsibility for the livelihoods of many Mainers. The remaining “owners and elders” at the table laughed and grinned.
Then the paid marketing consultant from a large, national, multimillion-dollar marketing firm got up and gave his presentation. He urged the group to diversify their processing methods and look to more value-added products than just the frozen berries. The response in the room came down hard and heavy, mixed with laughs and grins among the selected few. Marketing fees were for the unique health properties of the wild blueberry and their frozen product. They questioned their consultant’s failure to stay focused on the frozen fruit and suggested they may need to seek out another marketing firm. End of discussion, but a sizeable portion of those marketing fees are paid by all the Maine blueberry farmers as a committed “tax” for marketing. This “tax” is paid per pound for their berries when sent to the processor.
Wild blueberries, a native plant in Maine, have been commercially harvested since the 1840s. One major processing innovation in the 1960s that significantly changed the small farmer’s ability to have a direct market for their crop was the development of Individually Quick Frozen (IQF) berries. Today close to 99 percent of the wild blueberry crop in Maine goes primarily to one of six grower-processor companies that own and operate the IQF freezers. The frozen fruit is then shipped out of state to be used as an ingredient by food processors all over the world or now as an overabundant commodity being sold to school lunch programs due to unfair competition from Canada and record breaking years of production. While these large freezers have provided the opportunity for growth within the wild blueberry industry, many wild blueberry farmers have little sense of control or determination over the use and profitability of their crop. Many farmers find these large freezers are their only option for getting their crops to market. Many wild blueberry farmers are deciding to stop farming their blueberries because they now owe the processors more than what they received for their crops. Their wild blueberry crops have put them into debt.
Very little value added production is being done in Maine on a commercial scale. Stonewall Kitchen is a good example of this value-added niche that needs to be expanded in Maine. While their products sold profitably during the years when frozen blueberries were $1.25 per pound, imagine the profit margins they now enjoy, buying the same frozen fruit at 35 cents per pound. In the interests of Maine’s economic future and sustainable farms, the wild blueberry industry needs to support a business model that can be sustainable and benefit Maine agriculture during good and bad times. To withstand inevitable market fluctuations in commodities, specialty food companies that use the frozen berries need to grow here locally and hire Mainers to create products that capture and capitalize on current consumer demands. The widespread demand and significant profit margins for healthy foods is a reality in our food industry. We must support new businesses offering healthy, value added products who want to utilize Maine’s indigenous berry. Maine has a unique agricultural commodity that needs to be economically shared with more farmers and food processors for the benefit of all.