Steven Bibula points out winter damage on Liberty blueberry bushes at Orchard Ridge Farm in Gorham.  Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

If you’ve been looking forward to blueberry pie, you may have to wait a little longer.

Maine highbush blueberry growers say their crops are ripening later than usual, thanks to the cool, wet spring, and many u-pick operations are delaying their opening days by a week or more. But most are expecting good crops, despite significant winter damage to blueberry bushes in southern Maine.

“The berries are late,” said Maureen Bacon, owner of Pleasant View Blueberry Farm in Cornish. “It’s a heck of a year because of the weather. But the berries are big and ripe and full.”

Pleasant View opened for only limited picking Thursday to allow for ripening. Last year, the farm opened for picking on July 9.

The problems began last November, when sudden, bitter cold grabbed onto the state hard and didn’t let go. Heavy snow came early, and stuck around late into spring.

Blueberries can tolerate very cold temperatures, but they need to “harden off” first – or acclimate to the changing weather, says David Handley, vegetable and small fruit specialist at the University of Maine’s Highmoor Farm in Monmouth.

“Even though they’re native to this area,” he said, “they’re not used to getting that cold that quickly.” Such conditions are a sure recipe for winter damage.

Then, in May and June, temperatures didn’t rise enough to nurture bud development. That’s also why strawberries were 10 days to two weeks late this year, Handley said.

Lowbush, or wild blueberries, are ripening behind schedule as well, according to Lily Calderwood, wild blueberry specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. Because highbush blueberries are taller (hence the name), they are more exposed to desiccating wind, and experienced more winter damage than the lowbush, she said.

Rivard Farm in Springvale usually opens for blueberry picking around the Fourth of July, but “this year they were slow, slow growing,” Theresa Rivard said.

Justin Gray, manager of Pineland Farms’ produce division, says the farm’s acre and a half of blueberries, which usually opens for picking in late July, are about a week behind. And Donald Waliszek, owner of The Friendly Blueberry Patch in York, says his acre of blueberry bushes will also open later than the usual July 10-14.

“We’ve just decided we’re going to open up July 22 for half a day,” he said. “Our blueberries are very late coming in. We noticed we’re not having as many blueberries, so first come, first served.”

Aaron Libby of Libby & Son U-Picks in Limington, said although some of his blueberry varieties were damaged over the winter, the farm still could have the “largest crop we’ve ever had.”

Ives Berry Farm in Saco is also expecting a heavy berry year, according to owner Wayne Ives. Last year, the farm opened the second week of July, but this year Ives is waiting until the fourth week.

Patriot blueberry bushes at Orchard Ridge Farm in Gorham would normally be full of ripened fruit by now. Blueberries are ripening late, causing many you-pick operations to open a week or two later than usual.  Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Whether a farm touched by winter kill will still produce plentiful berries depends on a number of factors, including the varieties of the bushes – some are hardier than others –  where they’re planted, and how well they’re tended to in the spring.

“Unfortunately, it’s kind of a confusing picture to paint,” Handley said, “and part of that is the damage is very site specific.”

Blueberry bushes growing at low elevations, without good wind protection, suffered more injury this year than, say, bushes growing on a hillside with trees.

Snow depth also played a role. Everything below the snow was protected, and above the snow it was not, leaving the plants’ cells susceptible to wind and ice damage. “What the pickers are going to see when they go into the fields is the top of the plant looks damaged, but as you move down the buds are still alive, and there’s still plenty of fruit there,” Handley said.

One grower who has seen more than his share of damage this year is Steven Bibula of Orchard Ridge Farm in Gorham. Last year, he opened for blueberry picking on July 15. This year, he may not even be open in time for Open Farm Day, which falls on July 28. He still plans to welcome visitors that day, and to conduct tours of his farm, but he realizes that people who were expecting to pick berries may be disappointed. “I’ll have some berries,” he said, “I just don’t know if I’ll be able to handle the traffic.”

Bibula suspects he lost a little more than half of his blueberry crop this year. His farm sits at a lower altitude than many other blueberry farms, and gets a lake effect, as well, which adds to the harsh climate. The cold last fall hit his nine varieties of blueberries particularly hard.

“The cold snap seems to have done severe damage selectively in our fields by location and by variety, some varieties being more susceptible,” Bibula said. “The bushes hadn’t had time to go fully dormant, so they weren’t as hardy as they would have been, say, six weeks later. So when it hit zero degrees, they weren’t prepared.”

Allen Crabtree, owner of Crabtree’s Blueberries in Sebago, said he observed more broken canes – the part of the plant that produces buds – on his 1,500 bushes than he’s seen since 2001. His older bushes, planted in 1980, have branches that broke easily under the heavy snow, while newer bushes planted eight years ago were better off. Crabtree added that he normally prunes his bushes in mid- to late March, but the snow was still around, and “I refuse to prune with snowshoes on.”

Does this mean he’ll have a smaller crop than the usual 4 to 4 1/2 tons of berries? It’s too early to tell, he said, but he’s feeling optimistic.

“Just looking at the berry set,” he said, “I would say we have as good, if not better, set than we have in years past, so this is going to be a very good year.”

Steven Bibula checks on Patriot blueberry bushes at Orchard Ridge Farm.  Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Crabtree said out of 40 rows of blueberries, only five or six rows were ready for picking as of Wednesday. But he decided to “take a gamble” and open to the public this weekend. The third week of July is his usual opening time, so he’s on target, but he said customers shouldn’t expect “really good bumper crop picking” for another week.

“Normally we don’t open until we have more than enough for everybody,” he said. “We’ll have berries, we’ll be open, but it won’t be quite as good as last year.”

Although the season is starting late, Handley said, with the warm weather this weekend, “things will ripen in a hurry.” He suggests that if you want to pick blueberries, don’t procrastinate because the season could be shorter than usual.

The good news, Handley said, is that when Mother Nature thins the blueberry fields herself, “the berries that are left behind often will get bigger.” That’s because a bush that has been damaged will send all of its remaining resources to a smaller number of buds, helping them to thrive. And all that spring rain just plumped them up even more for your pies.

Bacon, the owner of Pleasant View Blueberry Farm, says it’s “Mother Nature’s way of making up for the horrible winter. You’ve got to look at the positive.”


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