Wild blueberry growers gathering in Saint Andrews this weekend

Barb Rayner/Courier Abby Henry holds up a couple of the containers of fresh blueberries for sale at Granite Town Farms in St. George last August.

Saint Andrews – Wild blueberry growers from across the province will gather at the Algonquin Resort Friday and Saturday, for the annual meeting of Bleuets NB Blueberry Association.
There is currently an over-supply of wild blueberries and, while it will be hard to avoid the topic coming up during conversations, John Schenkels, who chairs the association, said the focus of the meeting is going to be on production techniques, and how to operate in this kind of environment, as well as discussions on the promotional activities going on around the world to sell wild blueberries and extol their health benefits.
“We will be hearing reports on anything new on the promotional side of the industry, and we are bringing in a number of speakers.”
In view of the glut, he said some producers may decide not to rent as many bees this year as they have in the past, and there may be a few that decide to use none at all.
“Anything that affects blueberries affects beekeepers, because they are very closely intertwined. The expectation is less bees will be coming in, and that might affect beekeepers. It is very much an individual producer’s choice.”
Bees are usually brought in from Quebec and Ontario, as well as New Brunswick, because there are not enough local bees – so Schenkels said growers may decide to use local bees first.
Russell Weir of Gordon McKay and Sons 1996 Ltd., based in Pennfield, who is a director of the association, explained that before the 2016 crop, the all-time record for production of wild blueberries – which includes Quebec, Maine, and the Maritimes – was 320 million pounds, but last year’s crop set a new all-time record of 385 million pounds.
“That is 60 million pounds above and beyond the previous all-time best. That is wonderful. To bring it up by almost 20 per cent is almost unheard of.”
The problem is that even in 2016, the 2015 crop was not all sold out, so there was a surplus, said Weir, and the price was 30c a pound to growers which, if adjusted for inflation, was an all-time low.
“As growers, there is not a whole lot we can do about it. With the price being 30c a pound, we have to look at our less productive fields, because growers are going to be dictated by what yields they have.
“If you have a low yield, you are probably not going to work that field. I am sure there will be some berries left in the less productive fields. All fields are not alike, and a grower would be well advised to focus on high yielding fields.”
In order to have a good chance for a good crop, he said growers will have to put on fertilizer which increases the yield, and the most critical input is pollination.
“If you make sure you have a good crop by introducing bees, you will still get a good yield per acre, which is key to whether you make a profit or not.
“I am carrying a lot of fields, and I have to keep them in good shape for when the price does increase, because it takes time to get them back again.”
There was not very good snow cover this winter, and it was a little colder, said Weir, so, as a result there has been some winter kill on the blueberry fields.
“In a sense, it looks like we will not have a good crop, and that will help the oversupply situation. It is a difficult time for blueberry growers right now, because of the oversupply.”
Weir said efforts are under way to increase the sale of wild blueberries around the world. The oversupply and the lower price does encourage new customers and clients because they can pay a fairly low price for what would normally be a fairly expensive product.
“I think markets are improving, but it is not something you cure overnight. It is expensive to develop new markets. One of the biggest hurdles would be import duties in many of the Asian countries.”
Weir said the markets in China and South Korea are increasing all the time, and wild blueberries are probably being sold at a loss right now, to get established in these countries with the hope that import duties will be lowered.
“The Canadian government has been working on the problem, and trying to help. We are a private industry. The Wild Blueberry Association of North America is the marketing arm for the industry, and are in charge of promotions worldwide.”
This is a growing industry, said Weir, and the province has taken a wonderful long term view. He said there is a lot of unused Crown land in New Brunswick which is currently not in production, and the blueberry industry has been encouraging the province to turn more of that over to agriculture.
While that land is not currently being developed due to the oversupply, he said it will be available for the future, which will put New Brunswick on a much more important scale in terms of the whole industry, because eventually it will increase the province’s share of the market.
Currently New Brunswick has almost one-fifth of the wild blueberry market, said Weir, and is now out producing Nova Scotia.
“Our numbers have been growing every year for the past five years. Our production numbers are well up, and that is largely because of the research. We are learning how to fertilize better, and using a lot of bees for pollination.”
He estimates there are about 350 growers in New Brunswick, including those who might have half an acre behind the house to some who have 100 acres and he said there are a lot of spinoffs to the industry.
At McKays, he said he hires between 150 and 175 people each season, because he has more hand rakers than anyone else in the province. Most of the growers have levelled their land and harvest by tractor.
The farming side of the industry as a whole probably employs about 2000 people, said Weir, plus there are the truck and tractor drivers, those who work in the processing plants and those who sell wild blueberry products.