How can we have a surplus of “wild” blueberries?

Wild blueberries Maine

Willy Blackmore

Wild blueberries Maine

Willy Blackmore

Maine farmers have built a whole industry out of marketing "wild." Now, they're struggling to compete and the government is bailing them out to the tune of $10 million.

The rolling hills of Maine’s blueberry barrens bear little resemblance to other types of farms, with their neat rows and tidy crops. The low-growing bush, which seldom rises higher than a foot, spreads out in thick mats across the rocky landscape. This is where the “wild blueberries” you see at the grocery store—almost exclusively in the frozen foods aisle—are grown. And this year, with a near-record harvest expected across Maine’s 18,000 acres of barrens, the United States government is planning to buy $10 million worth of “wild” blueberries to help support farmers who are facing low prices and increasing competition from both Canadian lowbush blueberries and domestic cultivated blueberries.

When something “wild” shows up on USDA’s shopping list, it can raise some eyebrows.

Federal purchases of surplus food products—from cheese to dairy to corn—is a common means of balancing out the erratic nature of agricultural markets. About 2 billion pounds of goods are purchased annually, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and such items are used to bolster food banks, public school cafeterias, and the food operations of other charitable organizations. But when something “wild” shows up on the agency’s shopping list, it can raise some eyebrows. How can a “wild” crop be overproduced?

The answer lies in the peculiarities of this indigenous North American fruit—which sits somewhere on the spectrum between wild and domesticated crops—and the way in which it is commercially farmed or, to use the preferred industry term, “managed.”

The tough, hearty shrub can be found growing truly wild throughout its range, which includes Maine and both Canada’s eastern Maritimes provinces and Quebec. Thanks to a symbiotic relationship with a subterranean fungus, the berries are able to take up nutrients through their roots in places where other plants struggle to grow. Which is why you can snack on blueberries after hiking the rugged bald peaks of Maine’s coastal range, or while scrambling over the granite ledges that jut up out of the surf along the Atlantic coast.

Wild blueberry barrens MaineWilly Blackmore

Barrens were formed by glaciers. Fog and sandy soil provide ideal conditions for wild blues.

But for commercial blueberry production, barrens aren’t planted so much as they are promoted: areas with the right kind of well-drained, rocky, acidic soil are identified, and blueberry growth is encouraged by eliminating other competition. Traditionally, this was done by burning fields occasionally, a practice that dates back to pre-colonial times, and was the standard until the 1960s. Today, the soil’s pH is lowered chemically, and the fields are mowed every other year (only second-year growth will produce berries). Other vegetation is either cleared or killed off using herbicides, creating a comfy niche for the blueberries to take over.

There are other ways of establishing a lowbush blueberry field. “You can plant them, you can propagate them by seed, you can propagate them from cuttings, but they don’t spread very rapidly,” says David Yarborough, wild blueberry specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. When barrens are promoted this way, “you have hundreds or thousands—if not millions—of different varieties,” Yarborough says, instead of the handful or so of commercially cultivated varieties, all of which are highbush types. (There are wild highbush blueberries too, but they aren’t used in commercial “wild” blueberry cultivation.)

“For years, there was more demand for our product than there was supply.”

That genetic diversity, and the complex, tart flavor, and high nutrient levels that come with it, are part of what make lowbush blueberries special (highbush blueberries are bred for size, while lowbush wild blueberries are naturally smaller). But with 99 percent of the fruit going into the frozen market, and no significant sales of fresh wild berries outside of Maine, lowbush growers are having a hard time competing with the increase in cultivated highbush blueberry production—which has “more than doubled or tripled” in the past five years, according to Yarborough. Yields in Maine are increasing, too (though not as rapidly as cultivated blueberry production in other states), thanks to more effective management practices—even as the overall acreage has declined.

The changing market has been hard on lowbush growers. “For years, there was more demand for our product than there was supply,” says Homer Woodward, vice president of operations at Wyman’s, one of Maine’s largest lowbush blueberry growers and processors. But now, “the biggest reason we have this oversupply is our cultivated cousins: they service the fresh market, and they’re also serving the processed supply.” Those frozen cultivated blueberries are often cheaper than the wild ones, making them more attractive to food-service clients.

“We are victims of our own success,” Yarborough says of the downswing in the market. “Prices were good, and people were making a lot of money.” Now, some growers are essentially underwater: Their berries will cost more to harvest than the processors, which freeze and distribute the berries, will pay for them.

Maine’s Wild Blueberry Commission lobbied for a 30-million pound buy of wild berries this year, and USDA came back with a $10 million purchase, down from $12 million last year. “The government takes some of the pressure off by buying surplus berries at a fair price, and they use them for schools and other food programs,” says Yarborough. The purchases will be made through a bidding process in which growers and processors make offers, and USDA decides what lots of fruit it will buy.

But unless people are selling berries for pennies a pound, “It’s not going to be no 30 million pounds,” says Woodward. Even if it’s less than was hoped for, USDA purchases should help lowbush growers and processes get some more cash during a tough year. But it likely won’t be enough to keep the landscape of those rolling barrens from changing in the coming years: Yarborough says that some growers may be forced to take less productive fields out of production, as it just doesn’t pay to manage and harvest them any longer.

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Willy Blackmore is a freelance journalist who writes about food, culture, and the environment. He lives in Maine.