July 6, 2023
Recently members of the MFT staff and some of our friends from Midcoast Conservancy had the chance to visit Clarry Hill, a wild blueberry haven in Union, and get the scoop on the wild blueberry industry in Maine from Executive Director of the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine, Eric Venturini, along with area blueberry farmers Paul Sweetland, who has farmed Clarry Hill for decades, and Jake Boyington, who runs Ridge Road Blueberries in Appleton. As the only state with significant commercial wild blueberry production, Maine produces the vast majority of wild blueberries available in the U.S., with 98% being individually quick frozen (IQF) to ship to different markets across the globe, and the rest sold at a smaller scale, including fresh pack and direct farmer to consumer sales.
Due to the nature of these wild plants, it is vital that we preserve existing blueberry fields in order to secure the future of Maine’s wild blueberry industry. Once developed or reforested, it is very challenging (and costly) to regain acreage as wild blueberries cannot be re-planted and require years of forest management to bring existing plants into production. With the recent loss of some of this land in Maine, we now have 40,000 acres of these fields left (down from 60,000 not too long ago). This amazing wild crop is a cornerstone of Maine’s farming economy, and It’s important that we keep these existing fields in active agriculture for the sector to thrive, especially those lands that become vulnerable to development as many wild blueberry farmers approach retirement and the industry trends toward consolidation.
Eric, Paul, and Jake spoke with us about challenges the industry faces including potential loss of crop due to drought or disease, and increasing production costs despite static commercial prices. We also learned about the important research that helps wild blueberry farmers make informed decisions about pest management and adopt newer strategies to build their resilience to drought. We learned more about the traditions of hand-harvesting (or raking) and burning fields, and many farmers’ decisions to move over to a mechanized harvesting system to cut down on production costs, time, and carbon emissions. In spite of the challenges, Eric sees many upsides to wild blueberry farming and shared that with dedicated focus, it can be a rewarding and successful business for aspiring farmers.
With research continuing around drought mitigation, fungus and other diseases, and field management solutions, support for beginning and retiring farmers, along with efforts to protect these agricultural lands crucial to Maine, we can work to ensure that this industry, so intertwined with our history, can thrive for generations to come.