Wyman’s of Maine, headquartered in Milbridge, is one of five producers that ship wild blueberries outside the state.
Wyman’s of Maine, headquartered in Milbridge, is one of five producers that ship wild blueberries outside the state.
While Chinese tariffs are hurting some other agricultural markets, requiring emergency assistance from the federal government, Maine’s famous wild blueberries are not yet feeling the squeeze.

“One would assume that a 45-percent tariff would not make us particularly attractive” to Chinese buyers, said Nancy McBrady, executive director of the Maine Wild Blueberry Commission.

Luckily, the United States is the biggest consumer of blueberries in the world, according to McBrady, who explained that approximately 75 percent of the nation’s blueberries are sold domestically, making Chinese tariffs less of a concern.

“The vast majority of the crop stays in the United States,” she said.

McBrady said wild blueberry producers are no different than any other food sellers looking for new markets, and China is definitely on their radar. Maine producers, however, are already looking at other Asian markets for their wares. Foreign sales brokers attend trade shows in South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, and Singapore. Those places have all been very receptive to Maine wild blueberries, she noted, in part because of the strong reputation American goods have abroad.

While the 2 million pounds of wild blueberries sold to China last year has decreased to 75,000 so far this year, McBrady said local growers are not affected because they sell their harvest to producers who then move them along the supply chain. There are only five Maine producers that ship wild blueberries out of state, and she estimated not all of them are likely to have sales in foreign countries. They include Wyman’s of Maine in Milbridge; Cherryfield Foods in Cherryfield; Merrill Blueberry Farms and Allen’s Blueberry Freezer, both in Ellsworth; and G.M. Allen & Son in Blue Hill, according to McBrady.

Chinese tariffs could actually hold a benefit for Maine. As the Asian giant looks to blueberry producers in eastern Canada, where there is a much lower tariff and subsequently a lower price for Chinese importers, McBrady said that opportunity across the sea could mean Canada sells fewer wild blueberries below its southern border. Maine suppliers would be able to step in to fill that void, increasing their domestic sales.

Last year’s price to the grower for Maine wild blueberries was 37 percent less than it was in 2016 and the lowest since 1985, due to what both Dr. David Yarborough, a wild blueberry specialist with University of Maine Cooperative Extension, and McBrady characterized as an oversupply from previous crops still lingering in the market.

Maine averaged an annual wild blueberry crop of 95 million pounds from 2015 to 2017, far more than any other state, McBrady said. She added that with 300 million pounds grown by eastern Canada in 2016 alone, the supply needs to be reduced in order to bring prices back up to profitable levels.

The full crop size for 2018 and its price will not be known until the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service issues a report in the final week of June 2019. “Until then it is all speculation,” Yarborough said.

McBrady said there is anticipation that the 2018 harvest will be lower than last year due to current dry weather conditions and a frost that occurred in early June, affecting the Down East region more than the midcoast. “At the start of the year we had anticipated a 2018 harvest similar to 2017 — around 67 million pounds. However, given those other factors we believe it will come in lower. We don’t know by how much,” she said.

Hildy Ellis, coordinator for the Knox-Lincoln Soil & Water Conservation District, said local growers are cautiously optimistic about this season’s harvest.

“What I’m hearing is it isn’t going to be a banner year for the crop, but the growers I’ve talked to seem to think they’re going to be able to sell at a decent price,” Ellis said.

She added that conditions are very individual, one field to another, and vary depending on whether the crop is harvested for the fresh or processed market. Most growers Ellis spoke with said the recent hot spell has affected raking schedules. An organic grower in Warren said that while the hot and dry weather has affected them, they will still be able to fill all orders. Ellis said that in an attempt to achieve a better price this year, Coastal Blueberry Service in Union did not bring in bees or use fertilizer. The wholesale company, which sells mostly to the processed market, was thereby able to lower its costs and expects a profit from what has so far been a succesful crop.

Cultivated blueberries, the plumper variety often found fresh in grocery aisles, has seen an explosion of production. In one year, North America and South America together produced one billion pounds of cultivated blueberries, McBrady said, explaining that the huge crops have caused the cultivated berries to more frequently be sold frozen, which has traditionally been how wild blueberries are sold.

President Donald Trump claimed on Twitter on August 5, “Tariffs are working big time. Every country on earth wants to take wealth out of the U.S., always to our detriment. I say, as they come, Tax them.”

Economists explain that tariffs are not taxes on foreign companies or governments, but rather extra costs paid by American companies importing the goods produced abroad; if a Chinese or Canadian product has a 25-percent tariff placed upon it, the American company bringing that item into the country will pay 25 percent above normal price. This is seen as a weapon in a trade war because American importers will look to other countries whose goods do not carry extra costs, thus hurting the nation targeted by U.S. tariffs. But this works against American companies trying to export goods to nations that have raised their own tariffs in retaliation, such as China.

Trump’s tweeted enthusiasm for tariffs comes in spite of a July 24 announcement of $12 billion in emergency aid to farmers affected by the trade war with China, Mexico and other nations that imposed new duties in response to the administration’s tariffs.

The Wild Blueberry Commission helps producers with marketing and trade shows, but even then McBrady called exports to China only a “drop in the bucket” of overall American blueberry sales.

“If we could have 2 million pounds of sales to China every year that would be great,” McBrady said, adding that the industry will simply have to take a wait-and-see approach regarding the effect of tariffs. “In 2019 we may well spend our time and effort going to the countries that are much more amenable to sales.”