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October 3, 2011 | last updated January 17, 2012 12:59 pm

Blueberry growers adopt innovations to stay in step with increasing demand

Photo/Courtesy Cherryfield Foods Inc.
Photo/Courtesy Cherryfield Foods Inc.
A blueberry harvester in action at Cherryfield Foods Inc. in Cherryfield. Mechanization is helping Down East blueberry growers get more yield out of their barrens.

Looking ahead

Industry insiders say innovation will continue to be driven by challenges faced by blueberry growers, including acreage and pests.

Blueberries are grown on a two-year cycle. Each year, half the grower's land is harvested while the other half is prepared for the following year. At the end of each season, plants are mowed or burned to prepare for the berries' return in two years' time.

Currently, there are more than 60,000 acres of wild blueberries growing in Maine. Producers say if demand continues to soar as it has in recent years, more land may be needed for growing.

Blueberries are fairly resistant to native pests, but some non-native species have recently found their way to Maine. For example, the spotted wing drosophila (similar to blueberry fruit fly maggots) was first seen on the West Coast a couple years ago. It then spread to Michigan, and just this year a University of Maine etymologist spotted one here in Maine.

"Between travel, local, national and international trade, these things get carted around the world," says David Bell, executive director of the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine.

The university's cooperative extension has put out an alert to fruit producers to be on the lookout for the pest, which lays eggs inside fruit, making the larvae invulnerable to chemical pesticides. The fruit is rendered unsuitable for consumption or sale, and is known to wreak havoc with tomatoes, peaches, and bramble fruit such as raspberries, grapes and blueberries.

When you think antioxidants, you probably think blueberries. That association stems in large part from the efforts of the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine, says its executive director, David Bell.

"Fourteen or so years ago, people didn't even know what an antioxidant was," he says of the nutritional powerhouse.

But based on a U.S. Department of Agriculture study that singled out blueberries as high in antioxidants, the commission sprang into action. What followed was an all-out media blitz that created and boosted blueberries' celebrity, the economic benefits of which are being reaped now.

Small, family-run blueberry farms steeped in time-honored traditions have become part of a multi-million-dollar industry. Directly and indirectly, the economic impact of the wild blueberry industry in Maine ranges from $190 to $250 million each year. Nowhere in the state is more affected by blueberries than Washington County, which processes between 60% and 70% of Maine's wild blueberries, Bell says. Hancock County produces 15% to 20%, with the remainder found along the midcoast and in a couple of outposts in Oxford County.

According to the USDA's "Noncitrus Fruits and Nuts – 2010 Summary," Maine's 2010 blueberry crop came in at 83 million pounds, compared with just over 88 million in 2009. However, with price per pound at 61 cents, up from 36.3 cents in 2009, last year's total crop value came in at nearly $51 million, up from almost $32 million in 2009.

While preliminary numbers for 2011 won't be available until January, growers this year expected producers to receive higher prices for their crops. This expectation was based on a number of factors, including shortages of 2010 inventory and worse-than-expected growing seasons in blueberry-producing rivals Michigan and New Jersey.

Crop sizes have quadrupled in the last 30 years, driving blueberry growers and processors to be innovative as they work to stay ahead of demand.

Rise of the machines

There was a time when all blueberries were picked by hand or rake. As recently as 15 years ago — long after the first mechanical harvester was invented — 80% were still picked that way, Bell says. Today, that number has flipped in favor of machines.

Long gone are the days when families would take "working vacations" to earn some money raking blueberries. It was grueling, back-breaking work, but if you could do it well, you could make good money, Bell says.

The shift is the result of a simple numbers game. With annual harvests averaging more than 80 million pounds a year, up from less than 20 million pounds in the early 1980s, there just aren't enough people to pick the berries.

Mechanical harvesters, both tractor-driven and walk-behind, have been around for many years. But today's mechanical harvesters bear very little resemblance to their predecessors. Early models were notorious for destroying plants and fruit, producing much lower yields than hand-pickers. Over the years, technologies have improved to the point where modern harvesters have become more efficient and are able to harvest larger volumes than early models. Manufacturers are working to make improvements that will continue to drive efficiency and production, Bell says.

Case in point: Maine Blueberry Equipment Co. of Columbia Falls. With the help of a Maine Technology Institute grant, Zane Emerson developed a motorized walk-behind harvester that has become popular with growers, Bell says.

With floodlights mounted on them, most harvesters operate 24 hours a day and can do the work of more than 10 rakers. That ratio may soon get much higher thanks to a new design on the horizon.

This year, blueberry growers in Cherryfield started picking blueberries with a prototype harvester that was designed in Nova Scotia. The result, says David Yarborough, a blueberry specialist at the University of Maine's Cooperative Extension, was an improvement in harvest yields of up to 50%.

"The current machine was designed when blueberry production was 2,000 pounds per acre or less. Now that it's over 10,000 pounds per acre, a new picking head design is needed to get all of the fruit," Yarborough says. The increased productivity is a result of better pollination, pest management and other improved crop management techniques over the past 30 years, he says.

Oxford Frozen Foods, the parent company of both Maine Wild Blueberry Co. and Cherryfield Foods Inc., has been involved in designing and testing the new harvester. However, Ragnar Kamp, Cherryfield's general manager, is a little gun shy about discussing it in detail.

"It is very much premature to discuss this prototype at this point," he says. "Maybe we can revisit this topic a year from now."

Freeze frame

Without a doubt, the most popular way wild blueberries are sold is frozen, in a process known as "individually quick frozen" or IQF. Through this method, berries are flash frozen at extremely low temperatures within 24 hours of harvest to preserve each individual berry. Once frozen, berries are either packed into bags for retail sales or in lined cardboard boxes to be sold as ingredients to the food industry.

Not only does freezing make it easier to pack and ship blueberries nationwide or globally, it also preserves many of the nutrients that may not be present in fresh blueberries, Bell says.

"The USDA has conducted studies and found that fresh frozen fruits and vegetables are as nutritious, and in many cases more nutritious, than fresh," he says.

But while IQF produces a more versatile and convenient product, it also requires a tremendous amount of energy to make it possible.

Two Maine blueberry producers, Jasper Wyman and Son of Milbridge and Maine Wild Blueberry Co. of Machias, have taken steps to reduce their energy use.

Maine Wild Blueberry recently invested $900,000, including a $300,000 grant from Efficiency Maine, in an ammonia refrigeration unit. The new unit is designed to run more efficiently, and will replace five traditional Freon refrigeration units and coils. Efficiency Maine says the equipment will reduce the electricity Maine Wild Blueberry's freezers use by 1.4 million kilowatt hours per year — an annual savings of $171,000.

In addition to cutting costs, the ammonia system produces hot gas, which will eliminate the need for electric defrosting.

Wyman's approach to the freezer conundrum has been more circular and includes recovered water, which the company has collected in storage impoundments for several years. Wyman converts heat generated by its freezer system into energy that in turn freezes the recovered water, which helps maintain the freezer.

To further reduce energy use and costs, Wyman doesn't run its freezers at full capacity all year. Every September, the system automatically powers down to a point where its off-season energy load is reduced to one-third of what's used during the peak season.

As a result of these measures, Wyman has seen its annual electricity usage reduced by nearly 270,000 kilowatt hours, saving the company around $40,000 each year. Efficiency Maine also provided funding for Wyman's projects.

Form factor

While it may be a summer tradition to pick up a pint of blueberries at a farm stand or farmer's market, the reality is that less than 1% of Maine's wild blueberry crop is sold fresh. The vast majority is frozen, and nearly all the rest becomes ingredients in muffins, cakes, ice cream and other food products.

But rethinking the way blueberries are processed and sold presents another opportunity for blueberry growers to grow through innovation. Rather than fresh or frozen, Gladstone's Under the Sun, located in Hancock, uses an infusion method to process its wild blueberries. The process produces low-sugar berries that are sold either dried or moist in fruit juice.

Gladstone's started down this road in 2008 with a $248,000 development grant from the Maine Technology Institute. In 2010, according to MTI, the company processed more than 75,000 pounds of locally grown and frozen blueberries, and expects to process even more in 2011 to keep up with increased demands.

Seizing on the opportunity presented by the hiking, biking and kayaking opportunities in nearby Acadia National Park, company founders Rosemary and Craig Gladstone also created a line of trail mix and other snacks that feature their dried Maine wild blueberries as main ingredients.

Derek Rice, a writer based in Saco, can be reached at editorial@mainebiz.biz.

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