September 16, 2019

Blueberry hearing postponed Down East grower talks with Baldacci on lawsuit’s economic effects

The hearing in Knox County Superior Court for post-trial motions that may determine the direction of Maine’s wild-blueberry industry has been postponed to Friday.

It had been scheduled for Wednesday.

Justice Joseph Jabar called for the postponement Monday. He presided last month over a civil trial for a class-action lawsuit in which the state’s growers contended the state’s three largest processors conspired to fix prices paid to growers between 1996 and 1999.

The jury found in favor of the growers, awarding $18.6 million in damages based on the amount the growers believe they were shortchanged during the four seasons.

The processors – Jasper Wyman & Son of Milbridge, Cherryfield Foods Inc. of Cherryfield, and Allen’s Blueberry Freezer of Ellsworth – have denied ever fixing prices.

They filed the first of the post-trial motions that Jabar will consider in the hearing, calling for the justice to set aside the trial’s verdict. Attorneys argued in their Dec. 1 brief that the jury was “improperly instructed as to the nature and quantity of evidence required to prove the existence of a price-fixing conspiracy.”

Attorneys for the growers have moved to attach the companies’ assets to secure the judgment. They also filed paperwork that called for the companies’ accounts to be frozen to the tune of $61 million, which they say represents the processors’ real and personal property.

That means that if the justice grants the request, any bank or other party holding the processors’ assets would have to freeze the companies’ accounts.

That possible outcome has been troubling for processors and growers alike.

How the industry will manage through the coming months was the subject of an open meeting for growers earlier this month in Columbia Falls, convened by state Agriculture Commissioner Robert Spear.

In other blueberry developments, Machias-area grower Ivan Hanscom, who had circulated a petition among the state’s other growers to bring the industry’s new plight to the attention of Gov. John Baldacci, got his audience with Baldacci last week.

The governor was receptive to growers’ concerns that the blueberry marketplace has been upset by the jury’s verdict, Hanscom said Monday.

The decision had left the industry in crisis as both sides await further court decisions, he added.

“The governor listened to our short- and long-term concerns and promised to do what he can to reduce the damage to Maine’s wild-blueberry businesses,” Hanscom said, noting that Spear was part of the meeting in Augusta with the governor.

“We understand that this issue has its basis in the courts, and that process must run its course. But anything and everything else that can be done to support the blueberry infrastructure must be done,” Hanscom added.

The grower said he worries that one of the case’s outcomes may be that in 2004, Maine may produce and process fewer blueberries, losing valuable market share against Atlantic Canadian fruit and cultivated crops out of Michigan, New Jersey and other states.

Further, Hanscom contends, more than just Maine’s blueberry industry may be harmed if the verdict stands.

“Maine’s wild-blueberry business is based on small businesses, and these small businesses are important to our rural communities,” he said.

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