Blueberry Blues

raking Maine wild blueberries
Rakers work in a Down East wild blueberry barren. Growers are leaving some fields unharvested this season due to a glut of processed berries. 📷 Lottie Hedley

Growers leave fields unharvested as they confront plummeting prices and a glut of frozen berries.

By Joyce Kryszak
[I]t’s tradition in Washington County to wave to other motorists as they pass by, and Down Easters say there’s a different wave for every town. Ed Hennessey, of Whitneyville, raises his broad palm sideways to greet folks as we make our way past miles of wild blueberry barrens in his gray GMC pick-up on an equally gray morning. Soon, we see a truck carrying Hennessey’s son, Mike, who extends the same open-palm wave.

Mike and his two brothers help run the family’s 400-acre wild blueberry business, Hennessey Brothers. Ed, the 70-year-old patriarch, was also a banker for decades, though you wouldn’t know it from his gnarled, sun-leathered hands. He jokes that he was born holding a blueberry rake. As a kid, he raked his grandfather’s fields in Jonesport to pay for school clothes. As a young father tending his own fields, Hennessey literally dragged his boys into the family tradition. “When my oldest son, Mike, was still in diapers, I’d put him in his playpen, hang an umbrella over the top, and drag the playpen along behind me as I raked,” he says with a laugh.

Multigenerational wild blueberry businesses like the Hennesseys’ are common in Down East and midcoast Maine, many run by fourth- and even fifth-generation family members. They reap a natural gift — tiny, lowbush blueberries, from plants that took root after the glaciers receded 10,000 years ago and thrived in Maine’s harsh climate and sandy, acidic soils. The only state in the country where wild blueberries are commercially harvested, Maine hosts a $250 million-a-year industry comprising 500 growers, including one bona fide celebrity who recently joined the ranks — but more on him later.

Three years ago, processers began urging farmers to cut back on production — their freezers were overflowing.

For most of the past decade, Maine has typically yielded some 80 to 100 million pounds of wild blueberries annually, about 99 percent of which are sold frozen. But this year’s harvest, like last year’s, is predicted to be much smaller. Three years ago, food processors began urging farmers to cut back production — their freezers were overflowing. On the supply side, the backlog stems from several years of higher yields in Maine (for a decade prior to 2007, harvests rarely surpassed 75 million pounds) and increased competition from Canada, whose harvesters now bring in triple the amount of wild blueberries grown in the Pine Tree State. On the demand side, Canada has the advantage of a weaker dollar to sell its wild blueberries. Wild blueberries also compete with high-bush cultivated berries, the wild berry’s bigger, better-known cousin, which are grown not only in the U.S., but also South America, Asia, and elsewhere. Still another hit came earlier this year when China substantially jacked up tariffs on U.S. fruit.

The price paid to Maine farmers has plummeted, falling from a high of $1.10 per pound 10 years ago to a low of 27 cents last year — about half what the berries cost to grow. USDA subsidies offer some relief — the agency bought up about $10 million of Maine’s surplus berries each of the last two years, but it’s still not enough. The toll for Washington County alone is enormous, draining about $75 million from the local economy in 2017 alone. Fearing steeper price falls, Cherryfield Foods, one of six Maine processors, advised farmers to leave some fields fallow — at least for now. “We are frank,” general manager David Bell says. “Sometimes they take our advice, and sometimes they don’t.”

Ed Hennessey cringes at the word fallow. He nods toward a field shimmering with purple, orange, and pink buds just popping open; flowers that will bear fruit, fruit that will rot in the field. He’s “resting” a quarter of his fields that would normally be harvested this year, doing his part to reduce the inventory backlog. But he’s also saving money on what farmers call inputs: fertilizer and chemicals to control weeds and pests, and rented beehives for pollination. In the harvested fields, Hennessey has a battalion of tractors and mechanical harvesters, saving labor costs. Processors expect prices to rebound, hopefully by 2019. Hennessey said his farm can survive until then. But he thinks many won’t.

The price paid to maine farmers has plummeted, from $1.10 per pound 10 years ago to 27 cents last year.

“The wild blueberry business is in turmoil,” says Hennessey. “I predict at least half, if not 75 percent, of Maine farmers will go out of business unless prices stabilize.”

That’s difficult to fathom in Down East Maine. Everywhere you look are reminders that this is the country’s Wild Blueberry Capital — there’s even a roadside sign in Cherryfield saying so. The whole region pays homage to the tiny berry: blue buildings dot the landscape and namesake businesses extol the fruit. Every August, the entire town of Machias celebrates the harvest with its Wild Blueberry Festival, a weeklong extravaganza drawing thousands of visitors. But nothing says wild blueberry land quite like, well, Wild Blueberry Land. It’s hard to miss the giant blueberry-shaped dome on Route 1 in Columbia Falls. The whimsical attraction gives tourists a kitschy taste of wild blueberry, from jams and pies to a wild blueberry throne. Beware, there’s a price to enter: The store’s owner, former culinary teacher Marie Emerson, will ask you to sign a pledge, promising to always say the word wild when talking about Maine wild blueberries. She said it’s not just a word: “People don’t understand what’s at stake. It’s our culture — it’s our entire lives.”

Roadside attractions

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[J]ust down the road in Addison, Marie’s husband, Dell Emerson, gives me a tour of their 200-acre Wescogus Wild Blueberry Farm. He reminisces about his 56 years at the University of Maine’s Blueberry Hill research farm in Jonesboro, 35 years as the manager. Then the hardy octogenarian turns and looks toward the tidal river that runs below his fields and Cadillac Mountain on Mount Desert Island towering in the distance. “I lived through the best part of it, I’ll tell you that,” he says.

Emerson and his son, Zane, invented a hand-pushed harvester for rocky fields, because paying for hand raking is expensive and workers are hard to find. The invention has helped small farmers stay in the game. Some farmers opt to have the processors manage and harvest their fields, which can cost more than what processors are paying them back for the berries. Marie, for her part, is bitter about what they’re up against. “Imagine instead of getting a check in the mail, you get a bill,” she says. “Can you imagine?”

“I saw the writing on the wall and waved the white flag. We made the decision that was right for us.”

— David Whitney

David Whitney imagined it sooner than most. The owner of Whitney Wreath Company in Whitneyville, he also was a fourth-generation wild blueberry farmer — until prices started tanking. Sitting in his office sipping on his daily wild blueberry smoothie, Whitney points to photos of himself as a boy in the field alongside his father and grandfather, reminders of a proud legacy. Three years ago, with no end to the price dive in sight, he shut down his 400-acre harvesting operation. “I saw the writing on the wall and waved the white flag,” Whitney says. “We made the decision that was right for us.”

Yet others, especially organic growers, feel this is the time to expand. Organic blueberry prices are stable — and much higher — around $1.40 per pound, five times what processors pay for non-organic. Seven years ago, Lorne Michaels, the television and movie producer best known for Saturday Night Live, bought 25 acres in Washington County that was slated for development in order to conserve it and later built a home there. “I fell in love with how staggeringly beautiful that part of Maine is,” Michaels says. “It’s remote and preserved in a way few places are any more — I intend to keep it that way.”

The more he learned about organic farming and the local agricultural economy, the more Michaels wanted to support the industry, so he started his own wild blueberry farm. Well aware of the industry’s current struggles, he’s now expanding it, buying more fields in the region. He currently has about 100 acres being managed by experienced organic growers. The farm ships both fresh and frozen organic wild blueberries and other organic products direct to consumers and through Amazon. “The region has a fabulous agricultural life that is sort of underappreciated,” he says. “If I can help bring attention to it, that’s great. I want to support it.”

Online pre-orders for Michaels’ 2018 berries sold out in May. Other organic farmers are doing well too. Theresa Gaffney and her husband, Tom, own Highland Organics in Stockton Springs, one of the state’s 40 certified organic growers. After the berry harvest, the Gaffneys’ 25-acre farm yields what Theresa calls a second harvest, using the whole plant. The company grossed six figures last year selling value-added, potentially medicinal products — such as tea and smoothie powder — using not only the berries, but also the leaves, which are harvested in the fall when they’re a beautiful crimson and their antioxidant levels are highest. “It just blew out of the water,” Gaffney says. “I’m even getting calls from New Zealand and Australia.” She expects sales to double.

[M]errill Blueberry Farms, a wild blueberry grower and processor in Ellsworth, sees the potential too. Company president Todd Merrill says they’ve tripled the number of organic berries they process. Merrill is also president of the Wild Blueberry Association of North America, which teams with the state-appointed Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine to promote the berries in the U.S. and globally. One targeted campaign persuaded Maine and 22 other states to add wild berries to school lunch trays. “It’s almost a feeder system for us,” Merrill says. “These kids are the ones who eventually will be the consumers.”

The marketing is paid for by a mix of state and federal grants, plus a 1½-cent-per-pound tax farmers and processors pay the commission, about $900,000 last year. The money was spent on research, marketing, and promotional events to convince industry brokers that wild blueberries are better than high-bush berries. It wouldn’t take much mind-changing to make a big difference, believes Homer Woodward, the vice president of frozen-food giant Wyman’s of Maine. “If we could replace even 2 percent of the other frozen fruits being sold out there with wild, we wouldn’t be able to grow them fast enough,” he says.

The challenge is convincing people that all blueberries are not created equal. As the commission’s executive director, Nancy McBrady spreads the word that wild blueberries have a superior taste and are a superior “superfood.” According to multiple studies, because of their darker pigments, wild blueberries (even frozen) have twice the antioxidants as cultivated and powerful anti-inflammatory properties that fight cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer, and improve cognition. People are often shocked when they hear all this, McBrady says. “They think a blueberry is a blueberry. But then they say, ‘Wow! I didn’t know a blueberry could taste so good — and be so good for you.’”

Maine farmer Lynn Thurston knows there’s a bigger potential market for fresh berries too. She runs Blue Sky Produce in Phillips, a cooperative of growers shipping wild blueberries in refrigerated trucks to supermarkets as distant as New York and New Jersey. Thurston said there’s growing demand.

“People will pay a premium for them,” she says. “We just have to get them in their mouths.”

Still, the cultivated blueberries reign. They’re sturdier, so they can be shipped fresh much farther, and they’re grown all over the world. And more and more of them — about half of the one billion pounds grown in North America — are being sold frozen, which for decades was the wild blueberry’s domain.

Industry advocates aren’t the only ones worrying about the future of Maine’s wild blueberry industry. Over at Centre Street Congregational Church in Machias, Pastor Susie Maxwell worries too. The church founded the Machias Wild Blueberry Festival 43 years ago to help keep the church doors open, which in turn keeps many community services going, including the local food pantry that feeds one hundred families every week. “I mean, you say, ‘Come on! This is Down East Maine — the wild blueberry business is going to be fine!’” Hesitating, Maxwell adds, “But we don’t really know that, do we?”

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