Blue­berry crop falls with dis­ease, lack of pol­li­na­tion

The Morning Journal (Lorain, OH) - - FOOD+FUN - By Pa­trick Whit­tle

PORT­LAND, MAINE » Maine’s wild blue­berry crop is likely to be much smaller this year than in re­cent sum­mers be­cause the in­dus­try is con­tend­ing with trou­bles such as dis­ease and a lack of pol­li­na­tion.

The New Eng­land state is the wild blue­berry cap­i­tal of the U.S., and in re­cent years crop sizes have soared and prices have plum­meted, bring­ing un­cer­tainty to a key state in­dus­try. The crop grew a lit­tle less than one per­cent last year to al­most 102 mil­lion pounds (46 mil­lion kilo­grams), while prices hit a 10-year low of 27 cents per pound to farm­ers.

But it’s ap­par­ent as the sum­mer har­vest nears its end that that’s all chang­ing this year, Univer­sity of Maine hor­ti­cul­ture pro­fes­sor David Yar­bor­ough said. He said “mummy berry” dis­ease, a crop-killing ail­ment caused by a fun­gal pathogen, and other fac­tors could cut the crop as much as 36 per­cent this sum­mer.

“I do ex­pect to see sig­nif­i­cant re­duc­tion in har­vest com­pared to the last few years,” Yar­bor­ough said. “And it’s prob­a­bly go­ing to end a lit­tle ear­lier than typ­i­cal.”

Yar­bor­ough said a short­age of pol­li­na­tors like bees, a lack of rain and some lo­cal­ized frost is­sues have also held back the blue­berry crop. An­other fac­tor in­flu­enc­ing the crop size is that farm­ing ef­fort ap­pears to be down this year, pos­si­bly in­flu­enced by the low prices to farm­ers, he said.

The high crops of re­cent years have taken a toll on the in­dus­try due to over­sup­ply. The U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture ap­proved up to $10 mil­lion to pur­chase sur­plus Maine blue­ber­ries last month in an ef­fort to prop up prices. The USDA also made a sim­i­lar move in 2016.

One year of lower blue­berry yield might not be enough to raise prices, Yar­bor­ough said, be­cause so many sur­plus blue­ber- ries from past years re­main in freezer stor­age. A rise in prices to farm­ers could even­tu­ally im­pact con­sumers in the form of higher prices, but it’s un­clear yet if that will hap­pen any time soon, he said.

It’s also un­likely grow­ers will have trou­ble meet­ing de­mand, said Homer Wood­ward, vice pres­i­dent of op­er­a­tions for grower and pro­ces­sor Jasper Wy­man & Son.

“I think we’re go­ing to have enough fruit to keep every­body happy,” he said.

The wild blue­ber­ries are smaller than their cul­ti­vated cousins and they are of­ten used in pro­cessed food prod­ucts and smoothies. The vast ma­jor­ity of the crop is frozen. Canada also has a con­sid­er­able wild blue­berry in­dus­try, and com­pe­ti­tion with the coun­try has been prob­lem­atic for Amer­i­can grow­ers be­cause of the weak Cana­dian dol­lar.

Maine agri­cul­ture of­fi­cials have been work­ing to find new buy­ers for the blue­ber­ries in re­cent years to try to de­velop mar­kets for the large crops. The Wild Blue­berry Com­mis­sion of Maine an­nounced in May that eight new state public school sys­tems around the coun­try were be­gin­ning to offer frozen wild blue­ber­ries to districts.

ROBERT F. BUKATY — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A girl holds a hand­ful of wild blue­ber­ries picked near Sher­man, Maine. The state’s blue­berry crop is way down this year due to weather and a scale back of farm­ing. Maine is one of the biggest blue­berry pro­duc­ers in the coun­try, and the only pro­ducer of wild blue­ber­ries.

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