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Summer's Erratic Weather Will Likely Result In A Small Wild Blueberry Crop

Robert F. Bukaty
AP Images
In this Friday, Aug. 24, 2018, photo, a worker rakes wild blueberries at a farm in Union, Maine.

One of Maine's truly iconic crops is the wild blueberry. It's been something of a wild ride for the berries over the last decade, with some bumper crops, some not so bumper crops, tariffs, competition and, of course, always the weather. Maine Public’s Jennifer Mitchell spoke with David Yarborough, a blueberry specialist and professor emeritus at the University of Maine at Orono who has 40 years in the business, to explain a little bit about how this year's harvest has gone.

Ed. note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mitchell: First of all, what can you tell us about the size of the harvest that we're likely to get: big crop or not so much?

Yarborough: Not so much. With many crops, whether you have a big crop or a small crop, it's fairly weather related. And the events this year that were detrimental to the crop. Early in June we had three or four freezes, and certain fields that — actually there's a grower, Sunkhaze Blueberry in Township 32, and it wiped out an entire crop. They couldn't harvest anything at all. And I did talk to a few other, smaller growers that said they weren't going to bother to harvest. But the other aspect of it is this particular year was really hot, really dry. And principally downeast, in Washington County where most of the blueberries are grown, there was very little rainfall. Consequently, the berry size was very small and productivity was down. So that was kind of a one-two punch.

So not one of the the fabled bumper crop years that we've had over the last decade or so. But recently, there's been plenty of precedent for a 40 or 50 million pound year.

For three years in a row we had over 100 million pounds, and growers were getting very comfortable with that. But weather has been more erratic, especially with a frost later, later seasons, you know, as far as the blossoms coming up.

As you mentioned, it was kind of a weird season for weather. There were the late snows in the county, late frosts, and then we kind of rocketed into record high temperatures in May, and then drought. Plants tend to resent that kind of thing. So what about the berry quality, still good?

The lack of moisture actually creates smaller berries, which are a bit more flavorful. So I would say, because they started harvesting a little early, so they wouldn't lose the crop, and we do have some acreage under irrigation. So I think berries, although they're rather small, the quality and flavor are pretty good this year.

So harvest is one piece. Price is sort of the other, and I guess we find out later on, what prices the processors are setting and what price people are being paid. Any idea what that might be? Up, down?

It really depends on the demand. This particular year of the berries have been sold out that they had in storage. There's really good demand for wild blueberries, and there's a short crop. So if you look at supply and demand, we would expect the price to go up to the grower this year.

Do you remember what it was last year?

Forty-eight cents

So that's actually an improvement from the years previous, where it kind of bottomed out at like twenty-something cents.

Twenty, I think 25, in that range. It did. And that's because actually those three good years in a row accumulated a lot of berries and storage that didn't get sold. So you know that kind of put a depression on the price, and so they had berries in the freezer, they didn't really need the berries in the field. So the price was low for the growers.

Is there any insight into what this year's weather is going to do to next year's crop? Because this year's fruit, of course, is one thing, but next year's fruit is also somewhat dependent on what happened this year because it's a biennial crop.

Yes, that's correct. That's a good point. Because the vegetative growth that first year of growth requires water as well. And the period of time where they required the water, we didn't really have it. So it really depends on what we have for this fall. The advantage of the warmer temperatures have been that we have a longer period of time for the plants to be growing. And maybe they can catch up if we get adequate rainfall to catch up somewhat this fall, but certainly, the potential won't be there for a huge crop because they didn't have good growing conditions for the plants earlier on. That's correct.

So 100-million-plus pounds, probably not in our immediate future this season or probably next season either?

That's probably a good assumption. I think that if everything else was perfect, perhaps we could reach that point. But we never have a perfect year, and every year is different, so we never know what to expect. It's here and done.