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July 1, 2022

Wyman’s gift will launch first-of-its-kind wild blueberry research site at UMaine

field and structures Courtesy / Peter Greeno Photography Seen here is a landscape rendering of the University of Maine’s new Wyman’s Wild Blueberry Research and Innovation Center.

Wild blueberries will be the focus of study at a new University of Maine research center.

The plan is to build a three-acre research and education facility off University Farm Road in Old Town over the coming year through a gift from Wyman’s, a Milbridge-based producer of wild blueberry products, to the University of Maine Foundation. Terms of the gift were not provided. 

The Wyman’s Wild Blueberry Research and Innovation Center will aim to develop innovative production techniques and the next generation of wild blueberry industry leaders through greater learning opportunities, according to a news release.

The center’s new wild blueberry research field site will have plots controlled for genotype, similar to research traditionally conducted in orchards or row crops.

Wyman's harvests and processes fruit throughout Downeast and midcoast Maine. The 148-year-old, family-owned company says it is the No. 1 brand of frozen fruit in the nation and distributes wild blueberries globally.

“At Wyman’s, we view the genetic diversity of wild blueberries as a core strength, while recognizing the significant challenge it presents to production and research when compared to other crops,” said Bruce Hall, an agronomist at Wyman’s. “It's paramount for us to understand the entire crop across a whole system or area because we don't use a single variety.”

The center’s location, close to UMaine's campus in Orono, will increase access for intensive long-term studies and scientists who study issues related to blueberries. 

“The center will provide valuable opportunities to dive deep into intensive research, and involve undergraduate and graduate students in new studies,” said Rachel Schattman, assistant professor of sustainable agriculture at UMaine. 

Schattman said research will include the effects of climate change on wild blueberries and information that the industry can use to adapt.

Schattman led the project's development in collaboration with Hall and UMaine faculty YongJiang Zhang, Phil Fanning, Seanna Annis, Sean Birkel, Lily Calderwood and Diane Rowland.

Wild blueberries have lived on gravelly, acidic soils that make up Maine’s barrens for more than 10,000 years. The plants’ native roots create genetic diversity.

Wyman’s will donate genetically distinct parent plants from its farm in Deblois that will be rooted in raised beds at the new center in Old Town. The research team will fit each bed with moisture barriers to create controlled microenvironments. With the ability to control for precipitation, temperature and plant genetics, the research team will be able to study the crop with precision.

Starting in 2024, Schattman will study how plant genetics influence plant production measures, like water and nutrient use. Her research will be informed by historic and projected rainfall patterns developed by Birkel. 

Zhang is studying how different genotypes will respond to climate warming to build resilience in the crop. He is also testing the use of biochar, a processed form of timber harvest byproducts, to improve water-holding capacity in the soil, which may ultimately help Maine’s growers hedge against drought. 

Fanning will study how climate change may impact pollinator behavior and health as warmer springs herald earlier blooms and more insect pathogens.

The diversity of approaches is expected to help researchers and farmers understand how the wild environment the berries inhabit influences the crop and will could lead to advanced crop production techniques that benefit growers, consumers and the environment.  

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