U.S. Government To Buy Up To 30 Million Pounds Of Blueberries To Fight Price Drop

The U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to buy up to 30 million pounds of wild blueberries to help stabilize a drop in the price, ABC News reported on Thursday.

An unnamed member of Maine’s congressional delegation told the Associated Press that the agency will spend up to $13 million for the wild blueberries. The far northeastern state is by far the biggest producer of blueberries in the United States, producing a quarter of North America’s supply.

The government purchase came in response to a letter Maine’s congressional delegation wrote to federal agencies, saying the prices of frozen blueberries had fallen by as much as 50 percent in the last 5 years, and asking the government to buy the excess fruit for use in domestic food assistance programs.

The Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine reportedly said the recent drop in the price of the small blue fruits is due to oversupply from back-to-back big crops over the past 2 years, which has resulted in a serious backlog of wild blueberries, according to CNBC.

According to the commission, “frozen wild blueberries slid from 90 cents per pound in 2011 to 60 cents per pound in 2014 and continue to drop,” ABC News reported.

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Wild blueberries, which are harvested commercially in Maine and Canada, tend to be smaller and more flavorful than their cultivated cousins. They also tend to be richer in antioxidants. The USDA bailout could help raise the price of the fruit, spelling the end of low consumer prices for wild blueberries, though higher prices would benefit the farmers who produce the crop.

The director of the Maine blueberries commission also noted that the value of the Canadian dollar and the ever-present competition of cultivated blueberries are also factors in the tremendous drop in prices.

“Nancy McBrady, executive director of the blueberry commission, said the low value of the Canadian dollar also has hurt Maine’s growers. She said Canadian growers, which are centered in the Maritime Provinces, are at a ‘tremendous competitive advantage’ when selling in the U.S. and internationally because of the stronger U.S. dollar.”

Maine has 44,000 acres of wild blueberries, and the industry brings the state $250 million per year in revenue. A blow to this essential industry would deprive the state of needed economic value.

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Rep. Chellie Pingree from Maine defended the government’s action, saying it would provide a boost to the blueberry industry and give much-needed healthy fruit products to food assistance programs across the country.

“It makes a lot of sense for the federal government to make this purchase to help ease the surplus of frozen blueberries and at the same time supply food assistance programs with a very healthy, high quality food,” she said, according to the Portland Press Herald.

The United States is the world’s largest producer of blueberries, which are grown in 14 states. Michigan is the leading producer of cultivated, or “highbush” blueberries, while Maine leads in the wild or “lowbush” variety. According to the website of the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, blueberries are native to North American and constitute one of the most important fruit industries.

“In 2014, the United States produced and utilized 563.2 million pounds of cultivated blueberries (highbush and rabbiteye varieties). Of that amount, 333.8 million pounds were sold as fresh blueberries, and 229.4 million pounds were processed. In total, fresh and processed cultivated blueberries were valued at $824.9 million.”

That same year, according to the research center, “the United States exported 79 million pounds of fresh blueberries (cultivated and wild) valued at $138 million. Canada was the number one buyer, by far, followed by Japan. Exports of U.S. frozen blueberries were almost 56 million pounds, valued at $72 million (ERS, 2015).”

The USDA did not immediately respond to requests for comment regarding the purchase.

[Photo by Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images]