New Wild Blueberry Specialist Tackles Challenges

By Ruth Leubecker

 

A month on the job but eager to learn, Lily Calderwood is visiting wild blueberry growers, assessing market diversification and “right now trying to take first steps.”

With a PhD in horticulture from the University of Vermont and a couple of years at the Cornell Cooperative Extension Service, she was hired as the designated replacement of Dave Yarborough, longtime blueberry specialist at the Maine Cooperative Extension Service.

In 2019 Yarborough will step down after 40 years on the job. Meantime, during the upcoming year he will train Calderwood in the fine points of wild blueberry research and marketing, and the obstacles and threats to this annual crop that sets Maine apart from its peers.

Paying for two to occupy the same position for a year’s overlap has raised a few eyebrows, but Yarborough says, “We had some unused federal funds, and I was told if you can pay for it you can do it.”

So Calderwood joined the department on March 12 and has embarked on a steady regimen of learning the ropes. ”I’ll be visiting a lot of the growers and spending time at the blueberry farm in Jonesboro,” she said last week. “Everyone’s been very welcoming. The part I love though, is being outside and doing some of the research.”

She is entering an economic climate, however, where the average grower is not so much wanting growing/harvesting advice as how to sell this challenging little berry now stalemated in a stagnant marketplace.

Calderwood admits she’s not yet that knowledgeable about wild blueberries, but at Cornell she worked with crops such as barley, soybeans and apples. “I worked with a lot of specialty crops,” she says. “I think we need to (capitalize on) marketing Maine wild blueberries. This  is a really big selling point. I think we have a really good program here, and I don’t want to reinvent the wheel. I’ll be applying for grants that can help Maine growers.”

Her visits have already revealed areas she wants to pursue. “Most of the berries are being frozen, so there’s not a lot of market diversification,” says Calderwood. “We need to work on that. I’ve also discovered that every farm is different. And there’s no quick fix.”

Over four decades Yarborough has observed many changes in the business, including crop yield, growing competition and evolving efficiencies. “Something is going to happen,” he predicts. “Last year was a crop failure for everyone. In 2000 Maine and Canada were equal in yield. But now there are twice as many wild blueberries coming out of Canada. We need to be as efficient as we can.”

Yarborough, having seen many years of change, believes much of the process is cyclical. “New products, new markets are needed. We’re looking at Korea and China, and there’s been increased production from Mexico and Peru. Even Chile,” he says. “We had a large decrease in the 1970s. We had 60,000 acres and grew 20 million pounds. Now we have 44 aces and we’re growing 100 million pounds. In Maine the yield is about 4,500 pounds an acre.”

However, elsewhere in the nation, climate and other variables illustrate a widely different story. In the Pacific Northwest, for instance, according to Yarborough, the yield is about 10,000 pounds an acre.

“We do have a better price,” he admits. “The average price last year was 27 cents. We won’t get the final price this year until June 26 at 3 p.m. But we’re hearing Wyman’s is paying 35 cents.”

Looking to the years ahead, Yarborough factors in the antioxidant value and many benefits of Maine’s wild blueberry. “We have a unique fruit,” he says, “and we’ll have to create new markets.”

Will those berries of 2018 differ from the 2017 harvest? 

“Assuming we have a fairly dry fall, the crop may only be about 75 million pounds next year,” he says, “but that’s just a wild guess.”