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Maine blueberry growers feel pinch of fuel costs

Crews in blueberry fields in Penobscot, Maine, during the burning process. Growers fear that profits may also go up in smoke. Crews in blueberry fields in Penobscot, Maine, during the burning process. Growers fear that profits may also go up in smoke. (GABOR DEGRE/BANGOR DAILY NEWS VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS)
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Associated Press / April 29, 2008

ELLSWORTH, Maine - The high cost of fuel is being felt on more than just the state's roadways. It's also reaching into the state's blueberry fields, where the annual ritual of burning the plants has been in full swing in recent weeks.

As the fields go up in thick, black smoke during the burning process, blueberry growers fear that their profits may be going up in smoke, as well.

In Orland, grower Wayne Ames said it took 932 gallons of fuel to burn 13 acres of fields.

"You calculate the price out from there at $3.59 a gallon, or whatever they're getting now; that's going to hurt," Ames said. "But it's something we've got to do. I'm just hoping I can get back some of that when I bring them in."

Maine, with its 60,000 acres of blueberry fields, is the nation's only producer of wild blueberries. Blueberries are the state's second most valuable crop, behind potatoes. Last year, growers harvested nearly 77 million pounds, worth an estimated $71.5 million.

Blueberry growers typically prune their blueberry plants by either burning or mowing every other year, in an effort to increase yields. The plants are generally left to grow the first year after pruning and are harvested the second year.

As the price of oil continues to soar, the blueberry industry is feeling the pinch in three ways, said David Bell, executive director of the Maine Wild Blueberry Commission. The high cost of fuel increases the costs of burning operations, as well as of general farming activities that require the use of tractors, such as mowing, fertilizing, and harvesting. It also causes fertilizer prices to go up.

The full impact of higher fuel prices may not be known until after this year's crop is harvested, Bell said, but the industry is concerned.

"A lot will depend on how we do on the revenue side," Bell said. "But such high price increases are going to be a challenge for the farmer."

Jasper Wyman & Son in Milbridge, one of the state's biggest growers, is moving away from burning toward mowing because of the high price of fuel. It now mows about 80 percent of its fields, with burning taking place only where mowers cannot be used or where there have been pest problems.

The rising costs of doing business, coupled with a weak US dollar, are putting pressure on blueberry growers and on the food industry in general.

"You try to pass on those costs as much as you can and then find efficiencies in the operation, so you can build onto the bottom line," said Ed Flanagan, chief executive of Jasper Wyman & Son.

The question facing growers is whether the price they get during this summer's harvest will offset the increased costs.

All indications are that blueberry prices are coming down from last year, with inventory building up and supplies strong, said Flanagan. The good news is that the wild blueberry business has been strong in recent years.

"We're dealing from a good place," Flanagan said.

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