BANGOR -- The high demand and high prices for coastal property have put increasing pressure on land that has been used to grow wild blueberries for generations.
The real estate boom of recent years has placed much agricultural land at risk to development, industry officials say, and some fear the conversion could alter the landscape in Maine.
Blueberry land frequently has qualities that developers seek: It is open, has soils appropriate for septic systems, and often comes with spectacular views.
The loss of blueberry land to development is not an epidemic, but it is a present and apparently growing trend, said Scott Dickerson, executive director at Coastal Mountains Land Trust in Camden.
''There's not a town around here that hasn't lost some blueberry land to development," he said.
Blueberries are grown primarily along a narrow strip of the state that runs through the coastal counties that have seen steady population growth and continued development pressure. Industry specialists figure the state has about 60,000 acres in blueberry production, with the largest and most productive fields in Hancock and Washington counties.
Industry officials doubt there is any danger of the vast Down East barrens becoming building lots, but they agree that as land prices rise, and growing and harvesting techniques change, smaller parcels are becoming less profitable and more susceptible to development.
Real estate agent and developer Glenith Gray of Sedgwick recently purchased two parcels of land in Sedgwick -- one on Sedgwick Ridge Road, the other on Route 15 -- that include some blueberry land.
Gray plans to subdivide one parcel for house lots, the other for commercial development.
''I didn't go into debt to buy a blueberry field," Gray said. ''I bought it for the location."
A nearby parcel on Route 15 that is for sale for almost $2 million has a spectacular view of Eggemoggin Reach, Penobscot Bay, and the Camden Hills, she said.
''They're not selling blueberry land for that price," Gray said. ''They're selling a view."
Changes in the industry are contributing to the willingness of growers to sell smaller fields, said Joyce Benson, an economist with the State Planning Office. The industry uses more irrigation and mechanical harvesting than in the past. ''Some of the older, smaller fields may not be as well-suited to that. With the cost involved, they may not be able to use mechanical harvesting. It may not be economical," she said.
That's part of the reason Kermit Allen, treasurer of G.M. Allen & Son in Orland, sold the two parcels to Gray.
The family-run business and individual family members still own about 1,000 acres of blueberry land in Hancock County.
But, Allen said, the fields on those parcels had not been producing much in recent years. ''I'll probably wish I still had them now that the berries are coming back," he said. ''But they paid a pretty good price for them -- more than I'd see from blueberries while I'm alive, and then some."