Maine’s wild blueberry growers hurting without trade assistance

EVANSVILLE, Ind., Dec. 6 (UPI) — Maine’s wild blueberry growers say the United States’ trade war with China has delivered their tiny — and often overlooked — industry a devastating blow.

Despite losing millions of dollars in exports since the dispute began in 2018, the growers have received none of the Trump administration’s trade assistance that has aided corn and soybean farmers and a host of other agricultural interests.

“We lost markets because of the trade war,” said David Yarborough, the interim executive director of the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine. “And then we were excluded from the aid package, totally.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has made two allocations, totaling roughly $23 billion, to other farmers whose crops have faced stiff tariffs by China since the trade war began in July 2018.

Before the trade dispute began, Maine’s wild blueberry growers were pursuing a fast-growing market in China. Exports quadrupled, to 2.5 million pounds in 2017 from from just over 600,000 pounds in 2014, Yarborough said.

That market all but vanished when China included wild blueberries in its list for retaliatory tariffs. That tariff is level 80 percent.

To date in 2019, Maine has exported just 61,000 pounds of wild blueberries.

“Half of the budget of the [Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine] was going to develop the Chinese market,” U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said during a speech delivered on the Senate floor Wednesday in which he urged the Trump administration to support his state’s wild blueberry growers.

“Hours and hours, days, dollars, a lot of effort went to develop this Chinese market,” he said.

Maine is the only state in the country that produces wild blueberries. Its main competition is Canada, which grows the majority of the wild berries in the world.

In 2019, the Maine harvest was about 86 million pounds, Yarborough said. In 2018, Canada produced some 170 million pounds, according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

Unlike other produce, the berries truly are wild. The plants took root in the region following the end of the last ice age and have flourished there ever since. Farmers need only clear a field of timber, and the berries will flourish naturally.

Native Americans harvested the fruit for thousands of years, and European settlers followed suit in the 19th century.

Over the last few decades, growers have tried to increase yields by carefully tending wild fields. As a result, the volume of berries produced in both countries has increased substantially.

“We have seen an amazing expansion,” Yarborough said. “We used to produce 20 million pounds a year in the 1970s. Now, we’re producing on the order of 100 million pounds.”

Together, the two nations have flooded the market. By 2015, prices were plummeting — especially in for American berries — and Maine growers began to struggle to find markets.

“The owner of the freezer plant we were working with told me I did not need to come back,” said Lou Sidell, the owner of Perseverance Wild Blueberry Farm, which is in an unincorporated area near Kingsbury Plantation, Maine. “He said, ‘I can’t give you more than a quarter a pound.’ I can’t afford to truck them there for that price.”

In the years since, Sidwell’s annual income has dropped by thousands of dollars. He and his wife transitioned their farm to a “pick-your-own” operation, but they don’t know how much longer they will be able to stay in business.

“We’re about break even, now,” Sidwell said. “My wife and I are in our 70s. It’s a question of how much longer we can continue to do this.”

As growers across the state experienced similar setbacks, industry groups looked for ways to increase sales.

“We needed to build new markets,” he said. “China has a lot of money. And, as their standard of living is going up, they are in the market for more healthful products.”

Their efforts to expand to China paid off quickly, Yarborough said. And farmers had hoped that in the coming years, China would purchase an increasingly larger portion of Maine’s harvest.

With that market cut off, the state’s wild blueberries face an uncertain future.

Meanwhile, in April, Canada’s minister of agriculture announced the government would devote $1.6 million to increasing international exports to places like China.

“This investment enables the wild blueberry sector to expand global demand and promote the benefits of Canadian wild blueberries to existing and emerging markets,” Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada said in a news release.

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