Maine's wild blueberry harvest contributes millions of dollars to the state's economy every year. In fact, a study a decade ago showed that the direct and indirect economic impact of the wild blueberry business added up to $250 million. The future of the official Maine state berry, deemed a “superfood” by nutrition experts that may fight disease and help with brain health, was bright.
But that bright future has dimmed into a gloomier present for Maine’s wild blueberry economy. Despite bumper crops of more than 100 million pounds in both 2014 and 2015, the value of wild blueberry production has dropped fairly precipitously. In 2015, the production value for wild blueberries was $46.2 million, down 26 percent from the previous year.
Although it is too soon to know exactly how many berries were harvested this summer and what the value of the crop was, signs point to another big year for production and more downward pressures on the price, according to Nancy McBrady, the executive director of the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine.
“It is troubling,” she said last week. “There are grower and processor concerns about this… first and foremost, the commission understands the challenge and takes it really seriously. It’s a real concern of ours.”
So what’s going on with Maine’s wild blueberries? McBrady said to understand, it’s necessary to look outside of the state.
“Wild blueberries can’t be viewed in isolation,” she said. “The larger blueberry world is actually awash in blueberries.”
Those berries are generally not the the small, wild blueberries that people in Maine see on roadside stands every August. Cultivated highbush blueberries, larger and more watery than the wild berries, are grown in vast quantities in California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, Canada, as well as in South America. World production of the cultivated berries hit 1 billion pounds in 2014 and is predicted to hit 1.5 billion pounds next year.
“Consumers are very familiar with fresh highbush blueberries offered all year round,” McBrady said.
But because there is such an increase in yield for cultivated highbush blueberries, more are being frozen than ever before. Now, about 40 percent of the highbush berries are frozen, competing directly with Maine’s wild blueberries, about 99 percent of which are frozen. All those frozen, cultivated berries are driving down the price, she said.