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August 14, 2017

Mechanization, market glut mean fewer blueberry workers

PHOTO / LORI VALIGRA
PHOTO / LORI VALIGRA
Mechanization and a market glut for wild blueberries mean fewer blueberry workers are expected to harvest this month in Washington County.

Less than half of the traditional migrant workforce is expected this month in Washington County for the blueberry harvest.

The Ellsworth American reported the workforce number is down due to a decrease in hiring.

The decrease is due in part to a shift from traditional harvesting by hand to machine harvesting, as well as the industry-wide oversupply of blueberries from last year and competition both from Canada's wild blueberry market and from the cultivated blueberry market. The combined factors are pressuring Maine's wild blueberry growers to sell off existing inventory. The situation is expected to impact other businesses, such as grocery stores where workers shop.

Bruce Mathews, who owns the C.H. Mathews grocery store in Cherryfield, told the paper he thinks stores in the surrounding towns will have a hard time.

Without the blueberry factories, he said, "this store wouldn't be here, I'll tell you that," Mathews said.

In June, the Associated Press reported that the low price of Maine wild blueberries might drive some growers out of business. The AP reported that the price paid to farmers dropped from about $1 a pound in 2011 to 25 to 30 cents last year. Farmers have been hurt in other ways. For example, the AP reported, the number of bees imported to Maine to pollinate blueberry crops declined by 20% between 2015-16, said David Yarborough, a horticulture professor at the University of Maine.

In July, the industry got some relief when the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved spending up to $10 million through its "bonus buy" program to purchase Maine wild blueberries.

The Passamaquoddy Tribe's company, Passamaquoddy Wild Blueberry Co., has been particularly hard-hit. In July, the Quoddy Tides reported that the tribe announced it won't be harvesting its more than 1,000 acres of blueberries due to the market glut, which is leaving growers without buyers as well as depressed prices.

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