Good news for wild blue­ber­ries in No. 1 state

Grow­ers eye turn­around af­ter rough 2018

Yuma Sun - - BUSINESS -

PORT­LAND, Maine — Grow­ers in the No. 1 wild­blue­berry state suf­fered an­other bad year, but agri­cul­ture of­fi­cials say there are rea­sons to be­lieve Maine’s his­toric and trou­bled in­dus­try is about to turn a long-awaited corner.

Maine farm­ers col­lected about 57 mil­lion pounds of the wild fruit in 2018, down nearly 11 mil­lion pounds from the pre­vi­ous year, Univer­sity of Maine hor­ti­cul­ture pro­fes­sor David Yar­bor­ough said.

Prices to farm­ers, which topped out at more than $1 per pound in 2007, also do not ap­pear to have im­proved too sig­nif­i­cantly from re­cent years in which they lagged below his­toric lev­els, he said. Prices fell to 25 cents per pound in 2017 and ap­pear to be re­turn­ing from the bot­tom, but reached only 30 or 35 cents per pounds in 2018, Yar­bor­ough said

But Yar­bor­ough and some mem­bers of the in­dus­try also be­lieve there’s rea­son for op­ti­mism. Ex­cess in­ven­tory has held back blue­berry prices in re­cent years, and Yar­bor­ough said that is likely to start chang­ing in 2019 be­cause of two straight years of mod­est har­vest sizes.

“I think by the time we har­vest next year, we’ll be see­ing a draw­down of all that stor­age,” Yar­bor­ough said. “The ques­tion is al­ways, what crop are we go­ing to have next year?”

Maine is by far the largest wild blue­berry pro­ducer in the coun­try. The wild berries are a lit­tle smaller than their plump cul­ti­vated cousins, and they have a slightly dif­fer­ent fla­vor. Prices to con­sumers have held fairly steady de­spite the volatil­ity in the fields.

The har­vest fell in 2018 be­cause of weather, such as freeze, and the fact that har­vesters made a lit­tle less ef­fort than in pre­vi­ous years, Yar­bor­ough said.

Ef­fort on farms de­clined in 2017 af­ter three straight years of huge crops of over 100 mil­lion pounds, which sent prices to farm­ers tum­bling be­cause of ex­cess in­ven­tory.

Maine wild blue­ber­ries must also com­pete with those from At­lantic Canada, where the dol­lar is weaker and the in­dus­try is strug­gling with sim­i­lar cir­cum­stances. Al­most all the wild berries are frozen, and they are used ex­ten­sively in pro­cessed foods.

While the har­vest was down last year, it was fairly sim­i­lar to the crop size Maine used to see in the ‘90s and 2000s, be­fore larger crops be­came com­mon­place in the early 2010s. Homer Woodward, vice pres­i­dent of op­er­a­tions for Wy­man’s of Maine, said he’s hope­ful prices will start to track up in the com­ing years as ex­cess in­ven­tory starts to dwin­dle away.

“Hope­fully that’s what is hap­pen­ing,” Woodward said. “We had a ter­ri­ble har­vest, and the mar­ket didn’t re­bound like we nor­mally would ex­pect it to.”

AP PHOTO/ROBERT F. BUKATY, FILE

IN THIS AUG. 24, 2018, file photo, a worker pours wild blue­ber­ries into a tray at a farm in Union, Maine. State agri­cul­ture of­fi­cials said farm­ers col­lected about 57 mil­lion pounds of the wild fruit in 2018, down nearly 11 mil­lion pounds from the pre­vi­ous year.

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