How Wild Blueberries Give a Lift to the Land We Love

Wild blueberries, Maine’s cherished native fruit, help sustain the landscape and ensure that it thrives for generations to come.

Photograph by John Lane

Down East Maine has a reputation for being a bit sleepy, but come May, there’s a palpable energy in the windswept wild-blueberry barrens. The whir of buzzing bees and lilting birdsong are in constant surround sound, and the blackflies bite like mad. The fields unfurling as far as the eye can see don a light shade of pink that, as the summer progresses, shifts to green, white, and then indigo. By Labor Day, they turn a blazing shade of crimson, after millions of pounds of wild blueberries have been harvested. 

But there’s more than just fruit flourishing in the wild-blueberry barrens. The steps that growers take to help Vaccinium angustifolium thrive have important fringe benefits for the air, water, and land, as well as the local communities.

“This land has nourished an entire way of life down east for generations,” says Tony Shurman, president and chief executive officer of Wyman’s, Maine’s oldest wild-blueberry processor. The 147-year-old company, which owns 50,000 acres in Maine, plus land in eastern Canada, touts conservation as a high priority.

“We’re working to leave the environment better than we found it,” Shurman says, “so that this can continue for many more generations.” Here’s how wild blueberries give a lift to the land we love.

Working the (Eco) System

Because wild blueberries are commercially managed in the same place they’ve been naturally occurring for 10,000 years, growers can cultivate the fruit in a less intense, more targeted way than other crops. “It’s about knowing what to do and how best we can stay out of the way,” says Bruce Hall, an agronomist with Wyman’s. For example, when the plants are pruned each fall, the leaves are left to decompose in place, creating a natural compost that returns nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium back to the soil. Leaves and crushed berries left over from processing get put there too, which helps the soil retain moisture. “That’s working in partnership with Mother Nature,” Hall says.

Groundbreaking Science

Wyman’s agronomist Bruce Hall watches bees busy at work in a patch of wildflowers on Wyman’s land. Photograph by Nick Woodward/MPBN

In April, University of Maine researchers released a study showing that Maine’s blueberry barrens are warming faster and experiencing less frequent precipitation than the rest of the state.

The research has important implications for wild-blueberry growers: it could impact timing of the harvest and the crop’s future water needs, and it could help growers understand what they need to do to adapt their farming practices to contend with a warming climate in the future. 

But the benefit of the research, which is continuing, could reach far beyond the wild-blueberry barrens.

Rafa Tasnim, the UMaine PhD student who led the study, hopes that the protocols and methods the team used can be applied by other researchers to study how climate change will impact other crops.

“We wanted to do this work so others can follow,” Tasnim says. “If we want to save our agricultural systems and prevent food insecurity, it’s necessary to study how different microclimates are changing.”

 For Tasnim, who grew up in Bangladesh, the stakes are high — and highly personal.

“Back home, there are high temperatures, landslides, and so much food insecurity, and all of it can be traced back to climate change,” she says. “People are suffering so much already. Climate change is happening, and it’s happening now.”

Protecting the Pollinators

A sand bee pollinates the flower of a wild-blueberry plant. Photograph by Benjamin Williamson.

Pollinators are said to be responsible for one out of every three bites we eat, and for decades, ecologists have been sounding the alarm over their disappearance. Forces like climate change, habitat destruction, and certain pesticides have caused bee populations to decline dramatically and even pushed certain species to the brink of collapse. But in the wild-blueberry barrens of down east Maine, bees are thriving. The bees rely on the plant’s pollen and nectar to feed their young. Bees like to forage close to home, and the short, shrubby berry bushes provide shelter where bees can make nests safe from predators. 

Wyman’s is working to help pollinators survive. The company reserves 1,300 acres just for pollinator habitat and regularly cuts down trees at the edge of its fields so wildflowers that pollinators feed on can take root. In 2017, Wyman’s became the first commercial grower to adopt what’s known as Integrated Pest and Pollinator Management, a method of pest control that protects pollinators. “The more you can empower Mother Nature,” Hall says, “the better off you’ll be.” 

The endangered wild Atlantic salmon were once abundant in Maine. Wyman’s has worked with Project SHARE to restore salmon habitat on stretches of the Narraguagus River that run through its land.

The endangered wild Atlantic salmon were once abundant in Maine. Wyman’s has worked with Project SHARE to restore salmon habitat on stretches of the Narraguagus River that run through its land.

Bringing Back the Salmon

When Hall was growing up, in Milbridge, the fishing season for wild Atlantic salmon was as reliable as the blackfly season. Anglers and fishing guides poured into town each spring, filling up local restaurants and hotels. When Hall and his grandfather headed down to the banks of the Narraguagus River, they were packed so tightly with fishermen, you’d have to wait your turn to cast a line.

Four decades later, it’s a different story. In 2000, the fish was added to the federal list of endangered species. Today, Maine is home to the country’s last populations of wild Atlantic salmon.

Efforts to restore salmon populations have included dam removals and fish hatcheries where salmon are raised and released. As a charter member of the Washington County-based nonprofit Project SHARE, which works to restore salmon habitat in five down east rivers, Wyman’s has helped fund a host of restoration projects on parts of the Narraguagus River that run through the company’s land. Throughout the region, Project SHARE crews remove undersized and collapsed culverts that prevent salmon from migrating between the rivers and the ocean, replacing them with structures that restore the natural stream flow and create new channels where fish can find food, as well as refuge from warming waters.

For Hall, the benefits of Project SHARE’s work extend well beyond the riverbanks. “Those of us who grew up in this area remember what it was like culturally, environmentally, and economically when the wild salmon ran,” he says. “It’s part of who we are, and we all want to see the salmon come back.”

It may take decades to restore the species, but Hall is optimistic. He takes his daughters down to the riverbanks to watch for salmon jumping over the Cherryfield ice-control dam. He tells the girls about how he and his grandfather once fished for salmon in these waters. “Someday,” he tells them, “I hope I get to teach you too.”

Wild-blueberry barrens provide ideal habitat for upland sandpipers.
Wild-blueberry barrens provide ideal habitat for upland sandpipers.

Safe Haven

With its slender head, bulbous body, and dark eyes that seem perpetually widened in surprise, the upland sandpiper is regarded by birders as a bit of a goofball. Known affectionately as “uppies,” the shorebirds once thrived in Maine, but as historically agricultural lands reverted to forest over the last century, populations have dwindled, and the species has been listed as “threatened” in Maine since 1997.

In a state that’s 95 percent forested, the wild-blueberry barrens offer critical safe havens for upland sandpipers, which prefer at least 250 acres of open, non-forested land for successful mating and nesting. The birds feast on insects that thrive near the berries, and they perch on the fence posts to give their distinctive, sputtery call. The vast open skies above the barrens provide ample space for the shorebirds to perform their elaborate aerial mating displays. Uppies build their nests on the ground, and the shin-high wild-blueberry plants provide safe spaces for hatching their young.

Sustaining Local Traditions

Hunting, fishing, birding, and riding snowmobiles have long been cherished pastimes for Washington County natives. Wyman’s has worked to keep its land open for the public to enjoy and partnered with the state’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to manage the land for recreation. “We want to conserve these treasured traditions that are a big part of the culture and what’s special and unique about living here,” says Homer Woodward, Wyman’s vice president of operations. Three sites on Wyman’s land in Deblois are open to the public for fishing, birding, and paddling:

Bog Brook Flowage Wildlife Management Area: This 1,600-acre expanse of woods and wetlands has a reservoir that provides habitat for ducks, ospreys, and eagles.

Pineo Pond: This seven-acre pond, managed for bald-eagle and migratory-bird habitat, is reserved for fly-fishing, and the state stocks it annually with brook trout.

Foxhole Pond: This four-acre pond, which is also stocked with brook trout, is reserved for anglers ages 16 and under.