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The Business of Blueberries: Behind the Scenes at MFT’s Wild Blueberry Workshops

Maine’s wild blueberry industry is full of challenges. Each of the many obstacles wild blueberry growers Kate Mahaffey and Nate Dore of Slow Rise Farm shared is enough to put a farm business at risk, never mind juggling all of them at the same time: “Climate change seems to be playing a large part in why our overall pounds per field yields are decreasing; volatile market prices always leave us on edge after every harvest; and labor challenges always present problems before every harvest.”

To help blueberry growers come together and meet these unique challenges, MFT launched a Wild Blueberry Cohort of our Business of Farming business planning program. The program kicked off with a winter workshop series. The goal of these workshops was to help wild blueberry growers discuss and tackle issues that make it difficult to succeed in their industry, such as a short and intense harvest window, a product with a short shelf life, and fluctuating market demand and pricing, just to name a few. 

While such obstacles are daunting, there’s also a lot of potential for wild blueberries, said Ron Howard of Brodis Blueberries: “After a number of years of below-cost prices paid to growers, it is hard to come up with the capital to reinvest and scale up now, which is so unfortunate because the public is finally becoming aware of how amazing the wild blueberry is, and there is great market potential developing!” 

By bringing together an eager group of blueberry growers and farm business planning professionals, these workshops aimed to unearth strategies to help growers move from breaking even to building profitable, equity-building businesses. 

The cohort kicked off in January with a cutting-edge, innovative group of blueberry growers. Even though the workshops were held virtually, participants valued time connecting with other wild blueberry growers and discussing their industry’s unique obstacles. “The networking with the other growers was very special for me,” said Howard. “Working through the Wild Blueberry Cohort assignments we got to know and learn from each other in ways that will allow us to support each other as we move ahead.”

As the growers began to talk through common problems and brainstorm possible strategies, trends emerged, like creating value-added products. Many growers had begun turning their harvest into products like jam or beverages. While the price paid for commodity-market wild blueberries is set by processors, the cost of value-added products can be set by the producers themselves. This allows them to price their products in a way that leaves some margin beyond their production costs, so they can cover costs and make some profit.

While trends were sometimes overlapping, different growers had different takeaways from the workshops. Mahaffey and Dore from Slow Rise shared that “[the] session that discussed grants and resources available for blueberry farmers and for value-added products [was] particularly useful to us, and we learned about some great resources that we will definitely use in the future.”  MFT’s business planning experts also introduced tools like FarmCalc, which allows farmers to analyze their enterprises, calculate their unit costs, and identify their most profitable products. By offering growers a more thorough understanding of their farm’s finances, tools like FarmCalc can help inform decisions about the future direction of a farm business.

As many farming sectors in Maine continue to face an uncertain future, convening groups of talented, innovative growers can help inspire new solutions and spread knowledge to make Maine agriculture more viable and resilient. As the workshops wrapped up, growers shared hope that they’d be able to incorporate the learnings from the workshops into their business. “We feel we now have more confidence and resources to plan our business goals intentionally,” said Mahaffey and Dore. “We have learned how to keep better financial records [and] how to evaluate the health of individual parts of our business.”

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