October 14, 2013

Maine’s wild blueberry crop expected to reach some juicy numbers

Crops dodged widespread damage from the invasive drosophila fruit fly, and growers expect a harvest of about 90 million pounds.

By Clarke Canfield
The Associated Press

PORTLAND — Maine’s wild blueberry fields for the most part escaped widespread damage from a harmful new fruit fly during the summer harvest, resulting in what is expected to be an above-average crop.

click image to enlarge

Workers harvest wild blueberries at the Ridgeberry Farm in Appleton. Maine’s wild blueberry growers for the most part escaped widespread damage from a harmful new fruit fly during the 2013 summer harvest.

2012 Associated Press File Photo/ Robert F. Bukaty

Before the harvest began in early August, growers were bracing for the tiny spotted drosophila, a native of Asia that arrived in the U.S. five years ago and poses a threat to fruit growers.

But in the end, the fly didn’t cause as many problems as expected, said David Yarborough, a blueberry specialist for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. Many growers applied pesticides this summer earlier than usual in response to a traditional fruit fly, which might have kept down the numbers of the Asian fruit fly, he said.

“It didn’t appear to be as large an issue as anticipated, although it’s still in the background and we have to be wary of it because given the right conditions, it can exploit rapidly,” Yarborough said.

Wild blueberries are native to North America and grow naturally in Maine and eastern Canada, the only places that grow them for commercial sale. They are different from cultivated berries, which are larger, grow on high bushes and are commercially grown in about a dozen states and British Columbia.

This year’s harvest in Maine, which has about 60,000 acres of blueberries, had been projected to be about average at 86 million pounds or so.

But based on conversations with growers, Yarborough is expecting the final tally to be closer to 90 million pounds. If it reaches that level, it would be the third-best crop on record behind 2000 (110.6 million pounds) and 2012 (91.1 million pounds).

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will release the official harvest numbers in January.

Yarborough said the harvest in Maine’s midcoast area was below average. But growers in eastern Maine, who account for the majority of the harvest, had a good season.

With the threat of the spotted drosophila and poor pollination conditions in the spring, growers’ expectations weren’t high, said Homer Woodward, vice president of operations for Jasper Wyman & Sons, a wild blueberry company based in Milbridge. By the end of the harvest, most were pleased.

“I’ve heard that some other processors and growers had really good yields, and some were just OK, but overall we did better than we were expecting to do,” he said.

The Canadian harvest was down, Yarborough said, primarily because of a poor crop in Quebec. And prices appeared to hold stable, he said, according to industry price reports.

“If you can have a decent crop with a stable price, what more can you ask,” he said.

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