This summer, for the first time in four generations, the Hammond family won’t harvest the wild blueberries they tend on almost 200 acres Down East.

Like anyone who makes a living off the land, the Hammonds have weathered ups and downs for nearly seven decades, but the last few years have been the toughest in memory.

Last year, the family lost $20,000 on their harvest of almost 200,000 pounds of berries. Robert Hammond, 76, knew the risk he was taking – the year before the average price processors paid for wild blueberries plummeted to 25 cents a pound, drawn down by a market glut and foreign competition from 90 cents a pound seven years prior.

In the same year, the number of berries harvested slid 33 percent, to about 67.8 million pounds.

“I gambled and I lost,” said Hammond, who lives in Harrington. “I knew there wasn’t going to be a big crop. I figured with a small crop the price would increase and it did. By a nickel.”

It was the last straw. This year, they plan to harvest only enough to sell fresh berries, about 7 percent of their entire crop.

“I’m not going to do it anymore,” Hammond said. “We are not going to harvest at all, except for fresh pack.”

The Hammonds and growers like them are riding a seismic shift in the state’s wild blueberry business, triggered by a massive global cultivated blueberry industry and a production surge in Canadian wild berries aided by government support like access to public land and a weak Canadian dollar.

Economic anxiety has pushed to the forefront growers’ grievances against the handful of companies that process and freeze 99 percent of the state’s wild blueberry harvest. There are about 485 blueberry producers in Maine, down from 510 in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Some growers accuse processors of wielding too much influence on the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine, the quasi-public agency responsible for marketing and promoting the state’s legacy fruit.

Companies like Cherryfield Foods, Maine’s biggest processor and grower, have used tax money to benefit themselves at the expense of independent growers, said Courtney Hammond, who tends the family barrens with his father.

“They have not looked out for the whole industry,” Courtney Hammond said. “The organic producers, fresh-pack processors, mom-and-pop operations have all been left out.”

Hammond is referring to money raised from a 1.5 cent tax levied on every pound of berries that is harvested and processed, about $1.5 million a year that pays for the commission’s operations.

More than half that amount is funneled into a regional trade association, the Wild Blueberry Association of North America, mainly to market frozen berries as ingredients for products like muffin mixes, in restaurants and retail sales.

Some growers nurse other resentments. Depending on their contract, some growers don’t know how much they will be paid for their berries until months after harvest, which means what looked like a bountiful harvest might end up a bust. If the federal government purchases surplus berries, like a $9.4 million buy last year, it only benefits processors, growers complain. Cherryfield Foods, a Canadian company with operations in Maine, was the only company awarded the federal contract for frozen berries last year.

“Those five processors have ultimately been looking out for themselves for more than 20 years to the detriment of the independent growers they buy fruit from,” Hammond said.

VULNERABLE MARKETS

Not everyone agrees. Tony Shurman, president and CEO of Jasper Wyman and Sons, a major processor and grower in Milbridge, said the company has gone above and beyond to maintain good relations with its growers. While he doesn’t think Wyman’s is the target of criticism lobbed by some growers, Shurman recognizes that times are tough and tempers short.

“It is a trying time for the industry, there is no question about that,” he said. “The more we can work together to come up with ways to promote and market and find new avenues to sell more blueberries, the better it is for everyone.”

A bill pending in the Legislature would reform the blueberry commission, giving equal membership to growers and processors. Instead of an eight-member commission with five processors and three growers, the change would put 10 commissioners with equal representation for the two groups.

With equivalent representation, the commission may more forcefully advocate for Maine’s wild blueberry industry, some growers hope.

That may mean developing new products, promoting fresh and organic berries and lobbying state and federal governments for support and protection from foreign imports, said Greg Bridges, a farmer in Baring.

Bridges used to serve on the board of the Wild Blueberry Association and chaired its marketing committee for more than 10 years. The threat that cheap, Canadian berries posed to Maine’s industry was clear during his time on the board, but no one at the commission or the state and federal government moved to help Maine growers, Bridges said.

“There should have been a call to action a lot sooner when it came to addressing the big Canadian subsidies,” Bridges said. “I blame the board for not protecting our markets.”

Maine’s two biggest processors, Wyman’s and Cherryfield, have operations in Canada. Cherryfield, the largest wild blueberry grower in the state, is a subsidiary of Oxford Frozen Foods, a Nova Scotia company that advertises itself as the world’s largest supplier of frozen wild blueberries.

CANADA RAMPS UP

Maine is the only state with a commercial wild blueberry crop, and for generations Maine berries have dominated the frozen market.

But in recent years massive wild blueberry harvests in Canada and a booming market for frozen cultivated blueberries eroded Maine’s prominence.

Less than 20 years ago, Maine and Canada each produced about 75 million pounds. In 2017, Canada produced 206.4 million pounds, more than three times Maine’s yield, according to University of Maine records. In the same year, farmers from the U.S. and Canada harvested 259 million pounds of cultivated berries to freeze.

“The frozen blueberry wave kind of overtook us,” said David Bell, general manager of Cherryfield Foods.

Maine pioneered marketing blueberries as a superfood, bursting with restorative and disease-reversing properties. Now, the industry is trying to differentiate wild blueberries from cultivated varieties by touting the intense flavor and better health benefits of wild berries.

“My frustration is that we are still a fruit- and vegetable-deficient society,” Bell said. “There is plenty of stomach out there; the question is how to get at it.”

WILD vs. CULTIVATED

Some wonder if the commission has done enough to diversify its marketing to fresh, organic and other wild blueberry products.

Lynn Thurston, owner of Blue Sky Produce, a fresh berry wholesaler, buys from a dozen small growers and sells berries to chain stores as far away as Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Unlike frozen berries, the $2 a pound fresh berries fetch growers has remained stable over the last decade. However, fresh berries are only available for a few weeks out of the year and are too fragile to ship long distances. In 2017, only 350,000 pounds of berries were picked for the fresh market.

When customers taste wild berries, they prefer them to cultivated ones, Thurston said. Unfortunately, few retail customers in the U.S., the biggest blueberry market in the world, can recognize the difference.

“I think the commission has a long way to go to educate the public,” Thurston said. “The problem is that they don’t give people a reason to care what blueberries are in their muffins because they don’t know what wild blueberries are.”

Consumers are likely unaware of the controversy around blueberry production because retail prices have not fluctuated wildly. A 3-pound bag of frozen wild blueberries in a supermarket has been roughly $10 for the past several years.

Bell, from Cherryfield Foods, bristles at the idea the commission has not done enough to help small growers. The commission distributes free placemats and recipe cards to advertise fresh berries and recently established a fresh-pack and value-added committee to advocate for those industry segments.

“I would say it is patently unfair,” Bell said. “No one in the industry has succinctly said that over the course of four or five years … these were poor decisions or missed opportunities.”

Processors also push back against charges that growers have been treated unfairly.

It is true some growers don’t know what price they will get for their harvest until months after harvest, but that is simply a function of the commodity market, said Simeon Allen, from W.R. Allen, a small processing company in Orland. So many factors go into the calculation – leftover supply, quality, size and demand, to name a few.

“The market price, no one knows until we know what the supply is,” he said. “Of course it’s a gamble; it’s farming.”

Right now, because of the glut, prices are bad. And even though his company pays a fair price and works well with its growers, some of the blame is being pushed onto processors.

“I think with the really bad blueberry market right now, they are pointing the finger at the processors, which really isn’t true,” Allen said. “They have to take the blame out on someone.”

DOWNTURN, OR WORSE?

There is fear it is already too late to preserve Maine’s wild blueberry industry.

The average age of farmers in Washington County is 58, and more than a quarter are older than 65. In one of Maine’s oldest and poorest counties, it is uncertain if new blueberry growers will come up to replace them.

An entire way of life, when blueberry harvesting was a critical piece to the seasonal cycle of work, could be disappearing.

“I don’t know, we might be at the point where what we are trying to do is already too late to save the industry as we know it,” said Robert Hammond.

David Yarborough, who has studied wild blueberries for 40 years at the University of Maine, agrees things look grim for the industry right now. But context is important, he adds. Maine’s wild blueberry industry has persisted despite repeated downturns and spells of bad weather. Even with the average price so low, some farmers are still getting a good return from their fields, and the surplus from a few years ago has been depleted, Yarborough said.

Better times might be on the horizon.

“Agriculture is up and down, when you are farming for the long term,” Yarborough said. “There are still a lot of fields out there that are in good shape, there may be opportunities.

“We will come back out of it, with the industry looking different.”

 

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