George Joseph said his blueberry farm hasn’t been hurt by the drought affecting most of the state. Because of his irrigation system, his crops still are getting plenty of water.

“If you’re doing the irrigation, then there’s plenty of fruit,” said Joseph, of Steep Hill Farm in Fayette. “But if you aren’t irrigating, then you might be in trouble.”

Maine is the biggest wild blueberry producer in the country, and there was concern among blueberry farmers that extended dry weather might impact the crop. But for Joseph, and other farms in the area, that hasn’t happened.

“If people are mulching, then they have pretty good soil, so they’ll be in good shape,” Joseph said. “But if you’re not doing the work, then yeah, the dry weather could have an impact.”

The U.S. Drought Monitor website on Thursday listed the northern half of Kennebec County as being under “abnormally dry conditions” and the southern part as having a “moderate drought.” Augusta got 7.17 inches of rain over the last three months and 9.41 inches of rain since April, about 3.5 and 5.05 inches below normal, respectively.

Nancy McBrady, executive director of the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine, said typically growers would want about 1 inch of rain per week, but that hasn’t happened.

“We still have excellent-looking fruit because we had a good spring with good pollination,” McBrady said. “It’s going to be a good product no matter what.”

Other area growers are having successful harvesting seasons too. According to the Facebook page of the 100-acre Sweet Season Farm in Washington, the farm’s early season varieties are “picked out” but the mid-season crop is “coming on strong.”

Sites Farm, in Athens, said on its Facebook page that it is “loaded with blueberries ripening all at once” because of the heat.

McBrady said Maine is about halfway through its typical harvest season and current projections show a production of about 80 million pounds of wild blueberries, slightly below the normal hauls of 85 million to 90 million pounds. Even so, she said, the assessment is constantly changing.

“If we got a good amount of sustained rain, that projection could go up to the average or maybe even exceed it,” she said. “But that’s a big if.”

Wild blueberry specialist David Yarborough, of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension in Orono, said the blueberry industry in Maine was in good shape earlier in the year and had potential to see a crop around 100 million pounds, as was the case last year. But rainfall has been down about an inch per month since the summer began.

Precipitation has been more erratic and limiting over the last several years as the climate continues to change, Yarborough said, and the hot weather causes stress on the plants.

“They need moisture to cool off,” he said, “and if they can’t get it from rainfall, the plants will start taking moisture from the berries.”

The Fayette farm hasn’t seen a drop in traffic because of the drought, Joseph said, but rather because of the heat. He said people hear reports that it’s going to be really hot, so they stay home.

“People listen to the weather and get intimidated by the heat,” Joseph said. “It’s Maine, so sometimes they just listen too much.”

Joseph said his farm, which features highbush blueberries, had a good crowd Thursday morning, which is good because he’s concerned about some of the fruit going to waste.

Because of the heat, Joseph is seeing entire plants ready to be picked in one day, rather than normally taking two weeks to pick a plant clean. He said if there isn’t enough traffic to pick the fruit, it could be a problem.

“We’re trying to manage picking the ripest fruit and keeping up with our field,” Joseph said. “We’re watering about one-third of the field every day, and other farms are probably also irrigating if they have the ability.”

There’s only so much a farmer and grower and picker can do about a drought or extended periods of heat. McBrady thinks growers understand that they are ultimately at the mercy of the weather.

“They get the realities of growing this crop and understand there’s going to be some years where there’s events resulting in one crop being better or worse than the next,” McBrady said.

Tom Hawley, of the National Weather Service forecast office in Gray, last week said he expects drought conditions to continue throughout the summer. The state’s Drought Task Force met for the first time last week since 2002.

“I don’t see any real changes in the outlook, and it looks like we’ll continue to be dry,” he said.

A current La Nina watch for the fall and winter means Maine could continue to be drier than normal throughout the winter.

McBrady said blueberry prices are tracked by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and not Maine’s commission, but added it was probably too early to tell if the drought and hotter conditions would affect prices, and Yarborough agreed.

“We’re not there yet, but the last few years, there’s been such an accumulation of berries that the price has been pushed down,” he said.

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ