If you’ve planned to make the trip to South Korea for the Olympics, you’re likely to experience some exotic new foods — but you might also find Maine blueberries on the menu, since Maine holds a corner on the global market for this very special crop.
This story is the latest installment in our series “It Can Get There From Here.”
“This is a million and a half pounds, and our one in Deblois, our main cold storage is 12.1 million where we store most of our finished packs, and we’ve got one in Jonesboro for 10 million pounds,” says Wyman’s of Maine manufacturing manager Adam West, inside what he describes as a “teeny tiny” freezer.
These facilities, coupled with a few in Canada, will store the fruits from 17,000 acres of blueberry fields. All the crates and cartons at this facility in Cherryfield will be gone in a matter of hours, on their way to school cafeterias, boxes of Betty Crocker muffin mix and retail freezers across the U.S. and beyond — including possibly shelves in Korea.
So how did a modest Maine company turn into one of the state’s major exporters, with its berries bobbing across oceans?
Wyman’s has been around for 144 years, but back then, the business wasn’t berries.
“The company started as a canning company years ago, and it was a seafood canning company,” says Vice President of Sales Tom Gardner.
Gardner says that the original Jasper Wyman in 1874 staked his livelihood on Down East Maine’s other big product: seafood. Wyman canned clams, sardines and even, to the horror of modern Maine foodies, lobster.
But over the next several decades, the Wyman family started to tune into what was still a fairly unexploited resource around them: the rocky barrens stretching across eastern Maine and Canada.
“I don’t know how much you know about wild blueberries, but this is the only geography where the plant thrives. It’s been here for thousands of years and we pretty much manage it, but you won’t find wild blueberries in commercial quantities outside of this geography,” Gardner says.
Over the 20th century, the company tightened its focus on the wild blueberries around them, finally exiting the seafood canning industry altogether in the 1980s.
What started as a modest and very regional company is now the biggest producer of wild blueberries in the U.S., and the second biggest frozen fruit company after Dole, thanks in no small part to growing interest in antioxidants and “superfoods.”
A serving of wild blueberries, as it turns out, is high in antioxidants, and that has helped the wild blueberry recast its role from fattening pie filler, to global health food.
“Japan and the Japanese consumer was onto the health benefits of wild blueberries even before many of the consumers here in the United States, so there was demand there for it. And the same thing happened in Korea — we were actually getting phone calls, which is a really good place to be if you’re a salesperson, to get a customer calling you,” Gardner says.
As with most private companies, the precise figures are purposely cloaked in mystery, but Gardner says Wyman’s ships well in excess of a million pounds of the berries to South Korea each year, with more pounds destined to Japan. The company is just starting to enter China as well.
Wyman’s marketing strategy focuses on the “wild” part of its label, and ways to further distance the product from the larger, cultivated berries, which are also starting to enter freezer cases around the world.
Gardner says a few years ago, Wyman’s officially became “Wyman’s of Maine.”
“I think whether you’re in Japan or California, when you say ‘Maine’ to people, they think of rugged, pure, natural, and that fits very well with our product,” he says. “Maine, and trying to leverage that in our selling story, is very important.”
Of course, it wasn’t all about the magic of marketing. A free trade deal with South Korea in 2012 eased the tariff burdens for companies like Wyman’s looking to sell there. Recent suggestions from President Donald Trump of a potential repeal of that deal has the company taking notice, but Gardner says they’ll take a “wait and see” approach, for now.
In addition to component and retail sales into South Korea, Gardner says Wyman’s wholesale customers include some of the biggest yogurt and food companies in the world, so the Wyman’s wild berries really could be anywhere.
Asked whether he wonders where the company’s berries might end up being sold, Gardner says, “All the time.
“If you’re in sales, you know that these berries, these packages, could go to — could be 25-50 foreign markets. You could see our blueberries in Dubai next week. It’s possible.”
And of course, the company is always looking for a bigger piece of the pie. The next slice? Singapore, Vietnam and Malaysia.