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July 20, 2017

With a market glut, Passamaquoddy Tribe won't harvest its blueberries

Photo / Lori Valigra Maine's wild blueberry industry faces competitive challenges from cultivated blueberries as well as a steep decline in the price paid to farmers.

The Passamaquoddy Tribe’s company, Passamaquoddy Wild Blueberry Co., won’t be harvesting its more than 1,000 acres of blueberries, due to a market glut that’s leaving growers without buyers as well as depressed prices.

The Quoddy Tides reported the tribe has had a contract since 1998 with Cherryfield Foods Inc. to purchase its blueberries. In February, Cherryfield Foods informed the tribe it would no longer be buying them. Passamaquoddy Wild Blueberry is now suing Cherryfield Foods and its parent company, Oxford Frozen Foods Ltd., for breach of contract. 

Brian Altvater, president of the board of Passamaquoddy Wild Blueberry Co., told the paper the company was “looking diligently for another buyer but to date with no success." PWBC contacted other blueberry processors about purchasing the 2017 crop with no luck.

In court documents, Ragnar Kamp, president of Cherryfield Foods, said there continues to be an oversupply of wild blueberries in the market.

The tribe hires 600 rakers each season, which lasts two to three weeks in August.

Glut creating depressed market for Maine growers

David Yarborough, wild blueberry specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, told the paper that other small blueberry growers have had their berries refused by buyers this year. The glut is caused by increased production of both wild and cultivated blueberries, said Yarborough.

In June, the Associated Press reported that the price paid to farmers dropped from about $1 a pound in 2011 to 25 to 30 cents last year. Wild blueberries are smaller and, some argue, more flavorful than their cultivated counterparts. But Maine officials said wild blueberry growers in Washington and Hancock counties are seeing annual losses of $70 million. 

The Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine has been working to open new markets. Earlier this year, public school systems in Arkansas, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Washington bought Maine wild blueberries. According to USDA Agricultural Marketing Service sales data, more Maine wild blueberries were sold to schools during the month of April 2017 than for the entire 2016 school year.

"In the face of the current industry challenges of oversupply and low prices, we knew that we had to act aggressively to better position frozen Maine Wild Blueberries," Nancy McBrady, executive director of The Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine, told Mainebiz in May. "The USDA's School Meal Program, which serves breakfast, lunch, snacks and suppers to millions of children every day, presented a clear opportunity." 

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