Wild blueberry growers in eastern PEI expect an above-average crop once harvesting begins in a few weeks, thanks in part to the recent heat wave that’s helping to ripen up the berries.
Producers have gone through some ups and downs in the last few years in terms of yield, going from a record crop of 34.3 million pounds in 2016, to only 18.6 million last year, due in part to a cold, wet spring that included late frost. But growers contacted by the Graphic are optimistic this year’s harvest will be plentiful.
Gregory Ryan, from the Head of Montague, who owns 1,000 acres across eastern PEI, said despite some winter kill, it’s been a good growing season overall and believes this year’s crop will be better than the previous couple of seasons. “The fields are in good shape,” he said. “None of the fields look stressed out. We’ve had pretty good rains up until now; we need some sun to make everything ripen.”
Along the Byrnes Road, Reg Phelan grows about 15 acres of certified organic berries that he sells to customers at the Charlottetown and Cardigan farmers markets. “We’re expecting it to be a decent yield,” he said. “It’s a hard crop to grow organically. Our big task … is to keep the weeds down and try to have a decent harvest.”
And Patrick Byrne, who owns a total of 80 acres in Wood Islands and Morell, said there was no frost damage, and the crop is looking strong overall.
“The rains we had earlier (in the season) are showing in the size of the crop we have now.”
Mr Byrne, who is also president of the PEI Wild Blueberry Growers Association, said producers also hope for good prices. He said prices two years ago were “the lowest it’s been” at 22 cents per pound, while last year they were back up to 40 cents.
“The prospects are to have at least 40 cents or higher,” Mr Byrne said.
But all producers can do right now is speculate. Mr Ryan noted PEI typically doesn’t start its harvest until Nova Scotia and Maine producers have already began picking, and that’s when word starts to leak out.
“The price should be decent, but nobody wants to say anything,” he said. “Maine is supposed to start picking next week, so we should hear what the price is … by the end of next week.”
Part of the reason prices may improve is because there’s less frozen inventory. JoAnn Pineau, executive manager of the PEI Wild Blueberry Growers Association, said the bumper crop of 2016 resulted in “an unexpected glut” of berries filling the market, too much for the processors to handle.
“Much of it ended up in freezer stock, which drove the price paid to growers way down,” Ms Pineau said. “With the lower prices, many growers couldn’t afford the considerable inputs to bring a field to harvest, or decided to take lower producing fields out of production for financial reasons.”
But the freezers are emptying out now, while efforts are being made to expand markets to places such as China. And Jasper Wyman and Son Co, which has a processing plant in Morell, recently received funding from the federal and provincial governments to install new equipment that will help increase processing capacity.
Mr Ryan, for one, is pleased with such efforts. “The whole industry needs it,” he said, in reference to the Wyman’s expansion. “We don’t want to get in the same situation as a few years ago.”
Mr Ryan observed that blueberry production is still a growing industry and expects it to continue to grow for some years to come. He noted that growers such as himself are bringing in new ground, which will typically mature and produce its highest yields in 20 to 25 years. “We’re looking after our producing ground first but if we have time, we bring in a few acres every year.”