Yields and prices both down in first half of wild blueberry harvest


by Emily Leeson
Nothing seems to be adding up for wild blueberry producers this year. With record-sized crops over the last few years and plummeting prices paid to producers, there’s no sign that this year is going to bring back financial stability to the industry.
“We were hoping for a gradual turnaround of the situation this year, but it’s not shaping up like that at this stage,” said Peter Rideout, executive director of the Wild Blueberry Producers Association of Nova Scotia, in late August.
According to Rideout, while the crop this year looks closer to the long-term average size, the initial price being offered to producers seemed to be settling around 20 cents a pound. That’s down from what appeared to be a rock-bottom price of 30 cents a pound last year. 
“That’s not a profitable price at any level of production,” said Rideout. “Even if you had exceptional yields.”
Across the region, several factors have played a part in the smaller harvest this year compared to the last few years.
John Handrahan, president of the P.E.I. Wild Blueberry Growers Association, is keeping an eye on how things are developing in Maine, where the wild blueberry harvest begins. In late August, he was hearing reports of the crop being down by 30 percent and producers being paid between 16 and 20 cents US per pound. 
Weather has been one of the factors working against the crop this year.
“Maine and the Maritimes had a problem with wetness prior to and during pollination, and then we went into a very dry period,” said Handrahan. 
Wet weather during the pollination period has a negative effect on the bees’ productivity. Rideout said that while bumblebees are relatively happy to work away despite bad weather, the honeybees that do the bulk of the pollination for the wild blueberry fields are sticklers for good weather. 
“If you don’t have ideal weather, honeybees don’t work, they just stay home,” said Rideout. 
Rented by the hive, those bees are one of the many costs to producers in the management of their crops. Still reeling from the low prices of the last few years, many producers cut costs wherever they could this year.
For many, pollination services were scaled back. Rideout said that’s the case across the region. In fact, he said he heard that honeybee usage in Maine was probably less than half of what it was two years ago. 
Producers have also been reducing the acreage that they’re harvesting.
“Growers have taken some of their fields out of the production cycle,” said Rideout. “They are just mowing their fields and maintaining them in a holding pattern until things turn around a little bit.”
At the prices offered early in the 2017 season, there was very little profit, if any, available to producers.
“People in the industry are very concerned,” said Rideout. “That’s not really a sustainable price. It doesn’t hardly cover the costs of growing and managing blueberries, let alone your long-term fixed costs, debt servicing, and that sort of thing. We recognize that we’ve had three successive huge crops in a row, which has created a supply and demand situation that’s put things out of balance. That’s a factor but it’s still very much a concern.”
In P.E.I., Handrahan was still hopeful. With reports of a smaller cultivated blueberry crop across North America this season, there was still time for the wild blueberry price to rise.
Handrahan said he thought the final price should end up higher than the initial price. In late August, the P.E.I association was awaiting a meeting with processors to discuss the situation and get a projection of where they see the price settling. 
Worried about the financial stress this harvest will place on producers, the Nova Scotia association was looking to the provincial government and lending agencies to come up with strategies to provide some relief at the farm level.
“It’s quite clear that some of our producers are going to find themselves in financial difficulty at the end of this harvest season,” said Rideout.
The Nova Scotia association is also focused on marketing and promoting the industry both at home and abroad. Alongside their export marketing efforts, they will launch a new regional marketing campaign aiming to add wild blueberries to the “buy local” canon.
“We realize that it isn’t a major market for us,” said Rideout of the Atlantic market. “It isn’t going to solve all of our supply and demand issues, but we felt that there was an opportunity here. It’s not a quick fix. It’s just something that we’re doing because of the situation, and we’re optimistic that we’ll be able to grow this regional market and that it will make a difference in the overall picture.”
While this season isn’t looking like the one that will sort out the crisis, Rideout said he’s optimistic that producers will receive the relief they need to survive.
“We’re hopeful and confident that we’ll be able to work through this,” he said. “We want to make sure that we keep those commercial farm operations in business and that they’ll be there when this turns around. We’re going to need that fruit to service those markets that we’ve worked hard to develop over the years.”