MACHIAS — The final tally on Maine’s 1997 wild blueberry crop came in 7 million pounds higher than expected this week, making last summer’s harvest the second-largest in the history of the industry.
Rumors that the 70 million-pound end-of-harvest estimates might have been low have been circulating for weeks, and the final figure of 77.9 million pounds from the Maine Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources confirmed that suspicion.
“Mother Nature surprised us,” said David Bell, executive director of the Maine Wild Blueberry Commission. “Now it’s just a question of moving and selling them.”
Bell said the outlook for the industry remains positive and some processors are reporting a small flurry of inquiries from potential buyers in the last few weeks.
Last week’s ice storm does not appear to have damaged the 1998 crop, said David Yarborough, the University of Maine Cooperative Extension blueberry specialist. Yarborough said the blueberry bushes appeared to have enough snow cover before the storm to protect the plants. Once a plant freezes, the ice protects it from below-freezing temperatures, he said.
Winter is usually a slow time for wild blueberry sales. The wholesale price for wild blueberries has fallen by 7 to 10 cents a pound in the last few months, according to Jim Gawley, vice president of publications of the American Institute of Food Distribution. The institute is based in Fairlawn, N.J., and tracks commodity prices nationwide. Gawley said the current asking price for wild blueberries is in the range of 80 cents a pound, he said.
The 1997 crop is second only to 1992’s harvest of 84.2 million pounds. The 1992 harvest depressed prices and created a surplus of wild berries that resulted in several lean years for blueberry processors and growers.
The industry has rebounded in the last few years as more agresssive marketing and the introduction of new products have created higher demand.
John Sauve, executive director of the Wild Blueberry Association of North America, told members of the Maine Blueberry Commission in November that several new developments hold great promise for wild blueberries. Perhaps the most important are studies indicating that wild blueberries have a very high level of anti-oxidants, which are believed to guard against cancer, Sauve said. Wild blueberries are grown commercially only in Maine and the eastern provinces of Canada, and the Canadian crop was also large this year, according to Yarborough. He said the Canadian crop was 69 million pounds. Quebec harvested 31 million pounds, a considerable jump over the provinces’s 17 million-pound average, he said.
Yarborough said good pollination by commercial honeybees is being credited with saving the l997 crop from last summer’s near-drought conditions. The berries were smaller than usual, he said. The production of a 77.9 million-pound harvest from small berries means there were more berries than usual. Yarborough said Tony Jadzak, state apiarist, reports that orders for commercial pollinators are up and there doesn’t appear to be enough pollinators to meet demand.
In recent years, many commercial beekeepers have had their hives decimated by mites, and apiarists are reporting the one remedy to fight the mites appears to be losing its effectiveness.