Sunday, March 9, 2014
Doug Jones/Staff Photographer, Friday, July 17, 2009: Farm worker Onur Bulut, picks Blueberries which are just starting to ripen at the Spiller Farm in Wells. "We'll put some out in the store", says Bill Spiller the owner, just to show folks they're ready. The farm has about 250 high bush plants of four different kinds with "patriot" blueberries being the first to ripen.
Like just about everything else growing this summer, the blueberry season is running late in Maine.
But if the sun ever stays out, growers of both the signature Maine wild blueberry and the cultivated variety say they could harvest a bumper crop this summer.
Blueberries usually are ripe by this time of year, but the weeks of rain in June and early July have delayed the process. The blueberries are plentiful and plump, but they now need some prolonged heat and sunshine to turn sweet and deep blue.
Some pick-your-own blueberry farms in southern Maine plan to open this weekend, but other farms in the region say their blueberries are days or weeks away from ripening.
''People are driving through and wondering why we aren't open,'' said Penny Crabtree, who runs Crabtree's Pick Your Own blueberries in Sebago.
David Yarborough, wild blueberry specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service, said the wild crop is at least a week behind, but if the sun comes out it could catch up quickly. He said the good news is that Maine wild blueberry growers are poised to harvest a huge crop, possibly surpassing last year's 90 million pounds.
Yarborough said conditions for wild blueberries have been ideal except for the sun factor, starting with last year's rainy summer, followed by a snowy winter that insulated the bushes from frost damage. The spring pollination was successful, in part because of the 66,000 beehives brought in to the state. The rain has plumped up the berries.
''Now we need the sun,'' he said.
Wild blueberries are a $250-million-a-year industry in Maine, Yarborough said. They are harvested from 60,000 acres of blueberry barrens, largely found along Maine's northern coastal counties. There are pockets of barrens to the south, such as a 135-acre barren in Brunswick, two acres of which are accessible to the public on land at the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust's Crystal Spring Farm property on Pleasant Hill Road. Wild blueberries also grow in forests and fields throughout the state.
Although the acreage devoted to Maine's wild blueberries has remained virtually unchanged in the past few decades, yield has grown from 20 million pounds a year to an average of 80 million pounds because of improved management techniques. In 2000, the harvest was 110 million pounds, a record.
Last year in North America, 246 million pounds of wild blueberries and 419 million pounds of cultivated blueberries were harvested.
Maine is the largest producer of wild blueberries in the world and accounts for 15 percent of the combined wild and cultivated blueberry production in North America, second only to Canada, which produces 20 percent. The rest are cultivated blueberries grown in Michigan, New Jersey, Washington and other states. Recently, countries outside North America, such as Chile, have entered the market, creating the potential for a glut if there are several years of heavy harvests.
Only one percent of the wild blueberry harvest is sold fresh. The rest is frozen and used as a food ingredient.
Yarborough said the price for growers fluctuates with the supply. Last year, growers received 61 cents a pound for wild blueberries, compared with $1.07 a pound the year before.
But whatever the price, growers have to contend with poachers in remote barrens. The penalty for poaching blueberries was increased this year to a $10,000 fine and up to five years in prison.
Bill Spiller, who runs a pick-your-own berry operation at his Spiller Farm in Wells, has been picking slowly ripening berries for his farm stand, but probably won't open his bushes to the public for several days.
''Maybe I am pushing it, but there were so many nice big fat ones I hated to let the birds get them,'' he said.
Spiller said he hopes the blueberries make up for his poor strawberry and raspberry seasons, which suffered from the rain. He was only able to open his strawberry fields to the public on 3½ days. And several varieties of his raspberry bushes were wiped out by the rain.
''That really cut down on business,'' he said.
Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: