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Cumberland County’s blueberry industry could be in crisis

It could be another bumper year for Cumberland County's blueberry crop. That has producers worried of another year of low prices.
It could be another bumper year for Cumberland County's blueberry crop. That has producers worried of another year of low prices.

AMHERST – Ralph Thompson isn’t sure it will be worth it to harvest his blueberries this summer.

Thompson has been growing blueberries for many years on more than 80 hectares of property near Pugwash, but has seen a steady decline in the quality and price of berries to the point it could cost more to harvest the crop than to leave it in the field.
“From what they’re saying it’s going to be even worse than last year and we really didn’t think last year could get that bad, but it did,” Thompson said. “We still not sure we’re going to do. The fields we didn’t harvest last year look pretty good while they fields we harvested we haven’t done any mowing or spraying yet. It’s also hard to find the money to do it with after last year. If we get another bad year this year, even the big growers are going to be hurt.”
Thompson said producers like him got 28 to 30 cents per pound for their blueberries. He said it takes at least 50 cents a pound to break even.
He is trying to be optimistic the industry will rebound, but is also afraid what will happen if it doesn’t.
“If it doesn’t bounce back I feel it will be curtains for Cumberland County. Blueberries are very important to the economy of the area and they’re a major part of our agricultural industry, at least what’s left of it,” Thompson said. “There’s hardly anything left.”
Peter Rideout, executive director of the Wild Blueberry Producers Association of Nova Scotia, said there’s a perfect storm in the industry thanks partially to three years of exceptional crops.
In 2013, the wild blueberry crop in the region – that includes Quebec, the Maritimes and Maine – was 220 million pounds. It grew by 50 per cent in 2014, while 2015 and 2016 were also exceptional.
“Our crop last year was just over 400 million pounds. That’s exceptional,” he said, adding production in 1980 was 40 million pounds. “That’s 10 times bigger, mostly because of demand. Now we have this sudden increase in supply on the market and the market can’t absorb it that quickly. Things are out of balance.”
He said there’s still a significant amount of blueberries in frozen storage and that’s not expected to clear before this season.
He agreed the prices are not sustainable for many producers. Still, he too is optimistic conditions will eventually improve.
“It’s serious, but it’s not hopeless,” Rideout said. “We have an excellent product that people want. It has all kinds of great qualities like flavour and health benefits.”
Rideout said a lot of work is being put into increasing export markets but also doing more promotional work within the region to increase domestic consumption.
The association is also working with government agencies to make sure the proper programs are in place to support producers and to help reduce tariffs that hinder exports to giant markets such as China.
Twitter: @ADNdarrell

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