Workers harvest wild blueberries at the Ridgeberry Farm in Appleton in 2012. Given the low market prices, Maine growers are cutting back on pollination and other efforts to increase this year’s crop.

The federal government has authorized a $9.4 million purchase of Maine’s frozen wild blueberries, according to the executive director of the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine, Nancy McBrady. This will be the fifth time since 2012 that the federal government will subsidize wild blueberry growers in Maine amid flagging market prices.

The federal government will take a total of 8.9 million pounds of the frozen berries, McBrady said, and the surplus fruit will go to food banks, child care centers and social service agencies. Precise pricing won’t be determined until after processors submit competitive bids that are due Monday. Maine has five processors, and she said there is a chance that all of them will sell berries to the government, to be delivered between October 2018 and next March.

“In years past, pretty much everybody has won parts of the bonus buy,” she said.

McBrady said the commission asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture specifically to accept not just berries from the coming summer’s harvest, but from the 2017 and 2016 harvests as well. In 2016, growers harvested a bumper crop of 101 million pounds, but had trouble selling the crop. Prices dropped to an average of 27 cents per pound, down 19 cents from 2015 and 33 cents from 2014. In comparison, in 2007, blueberries sold for $1.07 per pound.

This year’s bonus buy comes just a few weeks shy of last year’s announcement that USDA was purchasing $10 million of surplus fruit.

“We are whittling down the backlog,” McBrady said. “I hope that this is what it takes for us to turn the page on the remaining inventory.”

The prices were in part a reflection of competition from Canada, where the tiny, sweet blueberries also grow naturally but – as in Maine – are given a big assist by farmers who clear fields and encourage expansion of the native plant. In recent years the Canadian crops had seen 50 percent increases in yields. Given the relative weakness of the Canadian dollar, wild blueberries from the north tend to be cheaper, which is making it hard for some Maine growers to stay afloat.

To counter the falling prices, the Wild Blueberry Association of North America is heavily marketing wild blueberries nationally.

Last year the Passamaquoddy Tribe, after losing its contract to sell berries to Cherryfield Foods Inc., decided not to harvest from its 1,000 acres of wild blueberries on tribal lands. The crop simply wasn’t worth the cost of hiring rakers.

To counter the falling prices, the Wild Blueberry Association of North America – which McBrady serves as the administrator for – has been heavily marketing wild blueberries nationally. In March, after a segment on the “Today” show featured Maine wild blueberries as a superfood promoting longevity, McBrady said page views on the association’s website shot up 325 percent and Wyman’s of Maine saw a 15 percent jump in retail sales immediately. In addition, she traveled to New Orleans on behalf of the Maine Wild Blueberry Commission in January to speak at a national conference of school nutrition programs, encouraging school lunch providers to use wild blueberries in savory dishes.

“We’re kind of spreading the gospel of wild blueberries.”

Farmers have made their own adjustments to the increased competition from Canada and a worldwide glut of blueberries. In 2017 Maine growers cut back on how many hives of honeybees they brought in to pollinate the fields, the vast bulk of which lie Down East, renting 27,000 hives instead of the typical 50,000. The more bees pollinating the fields, the bigger the crop will be. But without buyers paying a fair price, there is no point in maximizing the crop’s potential. McBrady said Maine state apiarist Jennifer Lund told her 37,200 hives had been brought in for the 2018 pollination season.

Last year’s harvest was estimated to be 65 million pounds; the blueberry commission is still waiting for official harvest reports from USDA. McBrady’s expectation is that the 2018 harvest will be about the same or a little larger than the 2017 harvest. Frost damage as well as a dry spring could suppress this season’s crop.

“We do need that rain but I did hear that the pollination season was just gangbusters,” McBrady said.

It isn’t just Maine growers who are cutting back on pollination and other efforts to increase the crop; Canada is also avoiding maximizing its yields. “I think steps have been taken on both sides of the border to curtail it somewhat,” she said of the crop.

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MaryPols

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