Wild Blueberry Growers in Maine Struggle with a Smaller Crop This Year

Aug 8, 2017

Maine wild blueberry growers are trying to salvage what they can from this year’s harvest, which experts predict will likely be smaller in just about every way: Smaller berries, smaller total crop harvest and smaller prices than a few years ago. Some wild blueberry growers in Washington County actually decided it was more cost effective not to harvest their blueberries and have mowed their fields in hopes of better conditions next year.

At Treworgy Family Orchards in Levant, co-owner Patty Treworgy examines one of her high bush blueberry plants.

“These plants are about five years old, they’re about four feet tall, we expect at some point in time, they’ll be about six feet tall,” she says.

Treworgy’s bushes are thriving — partly because they do not rely on the type of acidic soil conditions favored by their wild blueberry cousins and because they have access to something that many large-scale Maine growers lack: a reliable water source.

“We have the advantage of being able to irrigate,” Treworgy says. “We have a pond and we irrigate and that makes a big difference, but I don’t imagine that the farmers Downeast can irrigate all of those barrens.”

Like so many of Maine’s seasonal industries, the wild blueberry business flourishes or flounders with the weather. And this year, Prof. David E. Yarborough, wild blueberry specialist with the UMaine Cooperative Extension and professor of horticulture at the university’s School of Food and Agriculture, says the dryer-than-normal summer is taking its toll on the crop.

“The plants are under stress especially when the temperatures get up to 80 (degrees) and above without the rainfall,” Yarborough says. “We’ve had a few scattered showers here and there, but not nearly enough rain that we need. We need about an inch a week and the month of July and we got about half that amount of rain. We’re really in dire need of rain.”

Yarborough says that after a cold and rainy spring provided less than optimal crop prospects, some large wild blueberry growers decided to mow their fields before they could flower simply to preserve the plants.

“The flowering and fruiting takes a lot of energy out of the plants themselves, so if you allow that process to happen and then mow them, it’s much better to look at your field history and determine whether you should mow that field and not have it in production already and a number of them have already done that — they made that decision,” Yarborough says.

In fact, Yarborough and other industry analysts say that rather than grow more berries, Some of large processors would be happy to empty some of the millions of pounds of frozen blueberries from their freezers that have remained unsold — since last summer.

To help empty the freezers, The United States Department of Agriculture plans to buy $10 million worth of this year’s crop — the third year in a row and the fourth time in six years that the federal government will subsidize the state’s wild blueberry growers.

This story was originally published Aug. 7, 2017 at 5:35 p.m. ET.