7/12/18, Maine First Media Staff Report,
For three generations — dating back to the early 1900’s — the Bridges family has been wild blueberry farmers in Maine. However, the family tradition could come to a sudden halt before it reaches the fourth generation.
The Canadian government is subsidizing wild blueberry growth to the point of unsustainability for many Mainer wild blueberry farmers — including the Bridges.
“My grandfather and others started with natural wild Blueberry fields in the early 1900’s by chopping down the trees and burning the fields to stimulate the wild Blueberry bushes to spread and eliminating the weeds,” Bridges said. “This took a native plant in Maine and made it a commercially viable farm.”
Bridges owns a Wild Blueberry barren in Baring Plantation. He’s the former Chairman of the Marketing Board of the Wild Blueberry Association of North American, USA. And he’s a third generation wild blueberry farmer. But he says his children are looking at other options that will likely take them away from the Pine Tree State.
“My kids have chosen another path and will probably move out of state when they finish graduate schools,” Bridges said. “We have seen the writing on the wall. Why would you want your sons to deal with another ruined industry? My sons wanted to find another path that is more stable and work less. It’s hard to pass on a farm that is not profitable.”
And wild blueberry farming certainly is hard work. It’s a year-long process to enjoy the fruits of only a few weeks of harvesting. In the cold and snow of winter, farmers spend their days tending to their specialized equipment. As Spring blooms, farmers are at perhaps their busiest, working in the fields, spreading bees to pollinate and then preparing for the upcoming harvest. As the summer heat shines down, they get a couple of short weeks of a reprieve. But then it’s back to another month of harvest preparations. As August arrives, harvest begins and usually lasts four to six weeks. As the leaves change, farmers spend Autumn removing rocks from the fields and mowing the harvested land to start the cycle all over again.
And it’s important to remember; it takes two years of work to yield one crop of wild blueberries. After mowing the land, the next year will bring only flowers.
The life of labor used to be well worth it, with farmers awarded steady profits from the popular wild blueberries.
“Customers were willing to pay more for the wild blueberries because they offer a more intense blueberry flavor, double the antioxidants and of course the mystic of it being a native Maine crop — with some plants being hundreds of years old,” Bridges said.
Despite consumers being willing to pay more for the flavorful fruit, prices have plunged. In fact, wild blueberry farmers are now working from a hole. For the fourth-year running, the price paid to farmers for the wild blueberries is below the cost of production.
“We all need to make a living,” Bridges said. “It costs money to prepare the fields, tend them, and harvest the crop. Plus we need to pay our overhead: land taxes, insurance and USDA payments. There is not enough even to pay ourselves a wage. And since we are all self-employed, we don’t receive unemployment insurance.”
The third-generation wild blueberry farmer has even taken on some construction jobs to help pay his family’s bills.
“We have lost our means of making a wage to live,” Bridges said. “Plus, the equity we thought we had in land and equipment turns out to be worthless. No one needs this specialized equipment. And our taxes haven’t changed — even though most of the land is worthless as an income source.”
Bridges tells Maine First Media some farmers who in the past, leased their land as an extra source of revenue can no longer find anyone interested in leasing. More lost income.
“When all of the subsidized Canadian lands came online the supply outweighed the demand and cheaper Canadian wild blueberries took our customers and drove the price down,” Bridges said.
Wild blueberries used to sell at retail for about $1.50 per pound. Today, you can find sales for less than a single dollar. If you go into Traders Joes, you’ll notice all the frozen wild blueberries are from Quebec.
“We all want cheap, good-quality foods,” Bridges said. “But sooner or later, when all of us (Maine wild blueberry farmers) are out of business, what happens when there is a problem with the food supply — like what happened in the 2008-2010 era? Do you really want all your food coming from Canada and China?”
Add to that, the Canadian dollar is around 30%’cheaper than U.S. dollar, causing an even wider schism in pricing — and giving a huge discount to customers.
Quebec was producing on average around 30-Million pounds of wild blueberries annually. That number surged to 70-Million and now sits around 150-Million pounds of fruit every year.
And the Canadians aren’t done. According to Bridges, they’re still clearing land in Northern New Brunswick and Quebec, despite the surplus of blueberries in store freezers.
According to Bridges, the Canadian government pays subsidies to Quebec farmers based not on how much fruit is sold but instead based on how much Quebec thinks they should receive.
“The processors apparently do not operate on a profit-driven model,” Bridges said. “They don’t own the plants. The government does. So they have no incentive to get as much money from the sale of frozen wild blueberries.”
Canadian-government farms get a percentage based on pounds of blueberries sold. So, if the fruit sells cheap, they still get a fixed price per pound. Meaning the more pounds they move, the bigger the “profit,” without worrying about actual costs. Bridges is calling for the Department of Commence to investigate these schemes undercutting Maine farmers.
But all hope is not yet lost for the historic Maine wild blueberry industry. Bridges has offered a series of solutions that could ensure wild blueberry barrens in Maine have a future.
“This is a political problem, not a marketing problem,” Bridges said. “The Federal government needs to deal with trade. To make a profit, we need to get away from this crazy commodity-based pricing.”
Bridges echos the sentiments of President Donald Trump, who has been calling for better trade deals for America since before he first announced his bid for the presidency.
“First off, get better negotiators to deal with foreign trade issues coming into the United States and for opening offshore markets for U.S. goods,” Bridges said. “We need to renegotiate NAFTA with a hard-ball stance. We don’t need Canada for goods or services. Canada needs us, period. It might hurt a little at first, but we need to correct this imbalance of free trade. The Canadians have put up so many barriers to U.S. goods. Try taking something into Canada and see what happens. It is a one-way border.”
And Bridges says Chinese tariffs are nothing new for him and other wild blueberry farmers.
“China needs some real correction on tariffs,” Bridges said. “All growers and processors want access to China. But they have a 40% tariff on frozen wild blueberries. So, this nonsense of China slapping tariffs on U.S. products is a joke. They were already there.”
Beyond fixing unfair trade practices, Bridges offers four action items that could provide relief to the Maine wild blueberry industry:
- Change the makeup of the Maine Wild Blueberry Commission and WBANA;
- Invest government money in creating value-added Maine wild blueberry products;
- Stop giving USDA bonus buyouts to poorly thought out corporate farms;
- Divert some of the $30-Million in bailout dollars over the past three years from corporate farms to small farmers.
Maine First Media generally doesn’t support subsidies. The blueberry example from Canada shows the problems government interference in an industry can cause. However, if bailout money is going to be handed out, we’d rather see it provide relief for small Maine farms as opposed to giant corporate farms.
Bridges elaborated for Maine First Media on his point about adding Mainers to the Maine Wild Blueberry Boards.
“At the at the State level, we need more Maine farmers on the boards of both the Wild Blueberry Association of North America — which is the marketing arm for farmers — and the Maine Wild Blueberry Commission,” Bridges said. “The Commission sets policy and does lobbying for the farmers. Currently, both boards have processors that deal on both sides of the US/Canada border. Let’s free them of conflict by putting Maine wild blueberry farmers on these boards.”
If some steps aren’t taken soon, the Pine Tree State could see the demise of one of its signature crops — replaced by Canadian government blueberries.