Blues beyond pie

By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  August 31, 2011

It has been a challenging year for the crop, explains Dave Yarborough, a wild-blueberry specialist and professor of horticulture at the University of Maine in Orono, but "not a disaster year." A drier than usual June nicked Maine's growth, but a Midwest heat wave and drought could do more damage to cultivated blueberries, those that are managed and manipulated as an agribusiness fruit.

At the end of the season, that could be good news for Maine growers, says Yarborough, "given that there's a lower cultivated crop [yield], we'll have a bit more price stability" for berries that are native to our region.

It's too soon to say whether tropical storm Irene will have any negative impact on this season, but Maine's blueberry growers are surely grateful that Irene made landfall toward the end of harvesting season.

Come mid-September, the fields will be cleared of lingering crates and equipment, herbicide will be applied to weeds, and next year's fallow fields (wild blueberry plants are on a two-year cycle) will be mowed or burned.

"We apply agricultural practices but we are managing native plants — hundreds of thousands of naturally occurring varieties," says David Bell, executive director of the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine. The commission, a research and policy entity established by the state legislature akin to the Maine Potato Board or the Lobster Institute (which isn't affiliated with the state but does have a research connection with the University of Maine), is tasked with overseeing and encouraging blueberry research, promotion and marketing, and dealing with policy issues on the state and federal levels. (For example: When the US Farm Bill comes up for reauthorization in 2012, the commission will be there to push for more money for fruits and vegetables as opposed to large-scale commodity crops.)

Last year, blueberries fetched 61 cents per pound; that price fluctuates rather wildly based on supply and demand for both wild and cultivated berries, and that dynamic mostly depends on the weather and natural blights (a late frost, too much rain or too little — all of these factors can dramatically affect supply). All told, between direct returns and added value, the wild-blueberry industry accounts for $250 million per year in Maine.

And the commission hopes to raise that number higher still, primarily by moving Maine wild blueberries beyond the ingredient market and into grocery-store freezers (cultivated varieties make up the majority of fresh sales). By highlighting the antioxidant capacity of wild blueberries, they've had some success.

See, a few years ago, blueberry barons (not to be confused with blueberry barrens, the naturally occurring swaths of blueberry bushes) mused: "If we can get media interest in all these health benefits, maybe we can create some consumer demand," Bell recalls. Indeed, that strategy proved to be a good one. They've promoted research showing that blueberries could aid in the fight against cancer, heart disease, and aging, and in turn, "we've been able to leverage that into commercial retail sales."

Yarborough points to another important development over the last several years: "vast investment in irrigation." Without that, which has been implemented across the board, among growers big and small, we would not have been able to weather June's dryness as effectively.

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