by Dan Woolley
The wild blueberry industry may continue bumping along the price bottom for some time but there are indications of a price upswing in 2018.
Barron Blois, president of the Wild Blueberry Producers Association of Nova Scotia (WBPANS), told attendees at the association’s annual general meeting in Truro on Nov. 17 that there are reasons for optimism following the three very large crops since 2014 that pushed the wild blueberry supply in storage ahead of market demand and depressed the price.
Blois also noted the continued growing world demand for wild blueberries, which he said is driven in part by aggressive promotional and sales efforts.
He added that this year’s small crop “will ease the oversupply pressure and help bring supply and demand back toward a good balance.”
Peter Rideout, WBPANS’s executive director, compared the 2017 and 2016 harvests. He said the 2016 wild blueberry harvest in Maine, Quebec, and the three Maritime provinces totalled 403.5 million pounds, 89 percent above the benchmark year of 2013. This year’s harvest totalled 261 million pounds, which was 22 percent above the 2013 harvest.
Rideout said the market for frozen wild blueberries is facing less pressure from highbush blueberries this year due to frost this spring in Georgia and a wet spring and disease problems in the Pacific Northwest. He added that there was a strong market for fresh highbush blueberries this summer and into the early fall, which reduced diversion into the frozen and processing markets.
The combined cold storage level of wild and cultivated blueberries in New England as of Sept. 30 was just 64 percent of what it was at the same time in 2016, said Rideout, calling that “a sharp reduction.” In the Midwest and Pacific states, cold storage totals were at 84 percent of 2016 totals.
The total U.S. cold storage supply of close to 266.5 million pounds was 80 percent of the 2016 supply.
Cold storage levels of fruits that compete with blueberries are also down. For example, tart cherries were 84 percent of the 2016 total and Pacific strawberries are down slightly at 96 percent of the 2016 level.
Rideout added that Canadian wild blueberry exports are down this year at 14.7 million pounds compared to 30.5 million pounds in 2016.
This year, for the first time, wild blueberry exports to overseas markets exceeded exports to the U.S., said Rideout, with most European and Asian markets up from 73-139 percent compared to 2016.
Looking ahead to 2018, Rideout foresees a reduced inventory of U.S. frozen wild blueberries and a continuing significant inventory in Canada.
Rideout predicts continued sales volume increases, supply-driven marketing, and price-driven production cutbacks in 2018.
As for the supply-and-demand perspective for wild blueberries in 2019, the industry has found a new market in Australia and will be doing a lot of promotion in China.
Dr. David Yarborough, a wild blueberry specialist with the University of Maine, reviewed blueberry crop trends. He said the Canadian wild blueberry market share has increased and is now more than twice that of Maine’s.
In the past 20 years, Maine’s wild blueberry acreage has decreased while production has increased, said Yarborough, adding that Quebec over the same time increased from 30,000 to 84,000 acres. New Brunswick has twice as many acres, P.E.I. four times as many, and Nova Scotia has had a modest acreage increase.
Yarborough said that even though Maine growers cut back on pollination and contended with a low summer rainfall, they still harvested 65 million pounds, followed by New Brunswick at 54 million pounds, and Nova Scotia at 45 million pounds.
He added that there’s been a significant increase in wild blueberry productivity in New Brunswick and P.E.I. over the past five years, with very erratic yields in Quebec.
Yarborough said the U.S. highbush yield increased by 100 million pounds over three years.
Due to a spring frost in the southern U.S., there was a 15-percent reduction in the amount of highbush blueberries entering the processing market this year, he said.
Yarborough added that although wild blueberry production decreased this year, it wasn’t enough to influence the price because of the amount of fruit still in the inventory. He said there was reduced production on marginal fields, some of which he expects will be converted to organic production.
Peter Burgess, a wild blueberry specialist with Perennia Food and Agriculture Inc. based in Bible Hill, N.S., said he expected this year’s Nova Scotia harvest to total 45-50 million pounds, adding that the five-year rolling average is 54 million pounds.
Burgess said that although fewer acres were harvested in Nova Scotia this year, the exact acreage harvested isn’t known and so it’s hard to estimate the average yield per acre.
He added that this year’s crop was Nova Scotia’s fifth-biggest ever. That’s despite ideal conditions for Monilinia blight during the growing season. Burgess said the blight caused variable damage and the damage in some cases was “quite severe.”
He attributed the instances of severe damage to lack of treatment of infected fields or mistimed treatment. “It was some of the highest Monilinia disease occurrence I have seen in some time,” said Burgess.
However, he said that Botrytis blight was not as severe as in previous years.
Burgess said the bloom looked good despite fewer bees present for pollination. The pollination weather was poor but the number of native pollinators present for the bloom was good. As well, there was not as much drought stress this year.
There was a lower Blueberry maggot fly count this year, said Burgess, adding that Spotted wing drosophila’s first trap capture didn’t occur until mid-August and an early finish to the harvest helped avoid significant pressure from that insect.
Burgess also said there may have been some carry-over of pesticide inputs from previous years to reduce damage and increase fruit yield. However, he cautioned that yields in future years could be down significantly due to reduced inputs this year.
The 2017 Nova Scotia wild blueberry harvest provided a good fruit size and quality in many regions, said Burgess.
by Dan Woolley