Farming

Subsidies Encourage Maine Farmers to Keep Growing Too Many Blueberries

The market can't fix the problem when government insists on intervention.

|

Renée Johnson / Flickr

During a multi-year wild blueberry glut, government agencies have been using subsidies and grants to encourage Maine farmers to keep growing the crop. Too bad no one seems to want them. Maine has a glut of the berries, and now the governor of Maine hopes to help sell them off by spending $2.5 million on agricultural marketing.

Farmers have been growing wild blueberries in Maine since the mid 1800s. The berries perish quickly, so 99 percent of the crop is frozen, making it easier for a berry surplus to continue from previous years.

Maine farmers are already at a market disadvantage because their main competitors, Canadian farmers, trade with a weaker currency. John Bott, the director of communications and special projects for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry told Reason that there has also been a surplus of frozen highbush blueberries, a separate breed competing with wild blueberries in the market.

A combination of falling prices, increased competition, and advances in production technology should have reduced the number of blueberry farmers. Yet, government intervention has caused a multi-year surplus. According to Bott, berry prices have plummeted: 100 million pounds sold for $1 per pound in 2011 but only 25-27 cents per pound in 2016.

Despite these low prices, Canada and Maine churned out a bumper crop of blueberries in 2016: 400 million pounds, almost double the typical 250 million pounds. Bott explained that much of the wild blueberry surplus comes from improved production technology, pollination, good fertilizer, and favorable weather.

Last year's berry surplus prompted the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to spend $13 million buying up some of the berries. A $50,000 grant from the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry helped fund marketing to public schools—the berries will now be served in 19 states.

Despite obvious changes in the market, subsidies have encouraged farmers to keep at it; the number of farmers and acreages has not decreased this year. There have been some indications of scaling back production by using less fertilizer and fewer bees for pollination—perhaps because farmers in two Maine counties, Washington and Hancock, are producing at annual losses of $70 million.

The state of Maine is now hoping to solve problems exacerbated by government spending with more spending. Gov. Paul LePage's budget proposal allocates $2.5 million to promote Maine agricultural products by advertising the nutritional benefits of wild blueberries and promoting the berries at trade shows.

The hope is that this program will find new markets where wild blueberries could be desirable, such as in Asian cuisine, Bott said in a phone interview with Reason.

"We are trying to develop new markets for lots of agriculture in Maine. For wild blueberries, we can promote its uniqueness," Bott said. "They are a good source of antioxidants and have lots of health benefits. … We want to make connections between the grower and seller for this is specialty product. We have started to do some marketing events outside of the state, which resulted in new regional, national and international opportunities. … Traditionally, there has not been a lot of state money for this, and small farmers don't have a lot of resources, so we need to band together. If we can create new partnerships, there will be opportunities for growth."

The governor's latest proposal may keep farmers afloat for another year. Yet, farming has become more productive, thanks to better irrigation methods and improvements in technology. Eventually, Maine will need fewer farmers producing frozen blueberries.

A fear of the creative destruction to traditional farming practices is driving some of the market interventions. Nancy McBrady, executive director of the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine, makes her position clear: "There is a real possibility that some growers might exit the business entirely, which is a real tragedy because this is a 150-year-old industry in the state."

Attitudes like McBrady's are nothing new. In fact, it is strikingly similar to statements made during the Trump campaign about the loss of the American factory worker or during pretty much every expansion of production technology in history.

No one likes to see jobs lost or businesses fail. This is an ugly effect of the otherwise remarkable benefits of improved technology in agricultural production. Cheaper blueberries means more Americans can afford the awesome antioxidants Maine may now attempt to advertise. The state should let creative destruction play out—consumers will thank them in the long run.

NEXT: Friday Funnies: College Campus Madness

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Blueberries and vanilla ice cream.
    Blueberry pound cake.
    Blueberry pancakes.
    Blueberry smoothie.

    Heck… I found my thrill on Blueberry hill.

    Keep them Blueberries comin’.

    1. I too love blueberries, but not the price. They still seem to be pretty expensive down here in the mid-Atlantic, despite this glut. I think $6 per pound is typical at the grocery store. It’s usually more than strawberries, but less than blackberries and raspberries….

      1. I think that’s about labor costs. They still need to be picked by hand because they’re delicate and they don’t grow at a uniform height–it’s hard to automate the picking process.

      2. Mulberries are free for the picking. They’re a nuisance to the people whose trees they’re falling off right now.

    2. They should contact Costco.

  2. Marketing blueberries shouldn’t be a problem.

    Blueberry is the shrimp of Maine. You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, saute it. Dey’s uh, blueberry-kabobs, blueberry creole, blueberry gumbo. Pan fried, deep fried, stir-fried. There’s pineapple blueberry, lemon blueberry, coconut blueberry, pepper blueberry, blueberry soup, blueberry stew, blueberry salad, blueberry and potatoes, blueberry burger, blueberry sandwich.

    That- that’s about it.

    1. I thought lobstah was the shrimp of Maine…

      1. Can these farmers grow Lobsters? I like those more than Blueberries. Even though they’re bad for my cholesterol.

      2. Blueberry lobstah.

      3. I’m pretty sure shrimp are the shrimp of Maine.

  3. They should dry more of them. I get all the fresh wild blueberries I want for free.

  4. Nobody’s blaming global warming?

    1. I was blaming global warming.

      And the racist, homophobic rednecks who voted for Trump because of their hate.

    2. “Bott explained that much of the wild blueberry surplus comes from improved production technology, pollination, good fertilizer, and favorable weather.”

      What a Blueberry farmer calls Favorable Weather, is actually Global Warming. If it weren’t for humans, we wouldn’t have so many blueberries. See? But then the bears and birds would starve. Wait… I’ve got to google what the correct Leftist response is to this.

      1. If you examine bear shit in Oregon, they mostly eat blackberries. In my experience, blackberries are more abundant. And equally delicious. And free.

        1. Digging around in bear droppings doesn’t sound like fun to me.

          Those little seeds in Blackberries are bad for my {long word meaning I have pockets in my colon}-itius. But I do eat them from time to time.

          So has global warming produced too many blackberries as well? Does that mean the bear are getting to fat?

          Know what? I don’t care. Just let the farmers grow what they want and get the government out of it.

  5. Can you call a plant “wild” if it is being grown and harvested by a farmer?

    1. At night the berries drink, smoke and rebel against authority. Yeah, they’re wild alright.

    2. I don’t think so. Maybe if the farmer doesn’t fuck with the local ecology too much. As said before, I get all the free wild blueberries that I want for free. That’s a side-benefit from scouting bucks in the summer. Still looking for that chair-head buck.

    3. These are the lowbush plants that just grow wild everyplace up theyah. The farmer might add some fertilizer, bring in some bees and then rake them out, but as compared with the hybrid high bush berries like Duke, Patriot, etc. etc. etc., these things really are pretty wild.

      And btw, these are the berries to use in pancakes, little, tart, and the intensely flavored.

      1. Ok, I nust think “wild blueberry farmer” is quite the oxymoron.

        1. “Farming” connotes some amount of soil modification and sowing/seedling placement to me as well.

    4. That was my question too. I also wonder about “wild cherry”. Maybe at a certain time after one variety’s been domesticated & familiar, a newly domesticated one’s the “wild type”, hence “wild”.

  6. No one likes to see jobs lost or businesses fail.

    No one? Speak for yourself. I like it when the Buggy Whip industries go away, or when bloated companies, managed by arrogant men or women who listen more to faddish ideas or union bosses, rather than the very market they serve, die a swift and bloody death.

    1. I get get my jollies watching print newspapers shed employees like lizard skin, while proclaiming their importance with a shrill stridency. So don’t tell me what I like to see.

    2. You’ll never write for reason if you refuse to signal your socialist bona fides.

  7. Farmers have been growing wild blueberries

    Um…?

    1. Those blueberries can be very rowdy despite the growers’ best parenting.

  8. Bring popcorn.

    The two possible outcomes are Obamacare and Obamacare. I don’t want to watch that movie.

  9. Washington and Hancock

    are counties, not towns. Last I checked anyway. Ain’t from Maine. I only live here.

  10. I actually prefer the wild blueberries. They are much smaller. Larger than a BB but not by a lot. Much smaller than the marble sized fruit from domesticated plants. Have several bushes in my yard. The flavor and texture is better. That is my main gripe with blueberries. The texture. But I love the wild ones.

    Whatever.

    Too skinny for John.

    1. Yeah, the big cultivated varieties just don’t have the flavor of the little wild ones. Like a lot of commercial fruit, they were bred for easy harvesting and transport more than for flavor.

      1. The big ones have this jammy texture that I really don’t like. The tiny ones on the bushes in my backyard pop with a wonderful flavor.

    2. From what I’ve seen (limited experience), wild blueberries are not only small, but few on the bush/tree, and well protected by thorns?not the cuticular thorns as on rose bushes that just scratch you, but true spiky mini-branches that can puncture deeply.

      1. I have never encountered a blueberry bush, low or high, with thorns of any kind. I have no idea what kind of berries you are talking about.

        Low bush blueberries can produce quite large crops of berries, even truly wild ones.

        1. I’m having that tip-of-the-tongue sensation regarding the bush he’s thinking of, but it’s not mentally surfacing, dammit.

          Gonna have to scan through List of culinary fruits for visited links…..

  11. No one likes to see jobs lost or businesses fail. This is an ugly effect of the otherwise remarkable benefits of improved technology in agricultural production.

    Don’t go Robby on us. It’s a natural effect of creative destruction. It frees up those people to do other, more productive, work.

    1. I dunno. Creative destruction is good and necessary. But that doesn’t make people losing jobs and businesses failing any more pleasant to experience or see. I think libertarians could do a better job acknowledging that there are positives and negatives to everything. Of course we all know that, but the way people talk about it often comes off as dismissive of the pain caused by technological and economic changes.

      1. I see no contradiction between acknowledging negative consequences of creative destruction and opposing the alleviation of these consequences with monies obtained by force.

      2. But we aren’t “dismissive of the pain caused by technological and economic changes”. We revelin it. The more employees who are displaced by the coming of the fast food robots, the better chance I have of getting the exact order I placed, untouched by the fingers of random mild food poisoning. The more robots rather than people are employed to make stuff, the cheaper that stuff gets … for everyone!

        1. Speak for yourself.

          Service industry employees aren’t a great example. For the most part, they are fairly short term jobs. I won’t shed any tears about fewer people being employed flipping burgers. Things like manufacturing, farming or mining are a bit different. People really get invested in those things, often over multiple generations. I am in no way saying that the government should intervene to stop the loss of jobs in certain industries. But one has to acknowledge that the market is going to make life suck for some people sometimes, even if it’s the best thing for people in the long run.

      3. Socialists could do a better job of acknowledging the negatives to every single one of their ideas. Instead they just blame libertarians.

        1. Of course they could. And if I was conversing with a bunch of socialists, I would have said that.

  12. I’ve found that the fruit over the past year or so has been especially delicious. I’ve had some pretty incredible berries recently, cherries, and peaches…don’t get me started about the peaches.

  13. Why do you hate blueberries?

  14. There nice white farmers are only struggling because of the importation of Mexican blueberries. it’s the government’s responsibility to protect the livelihoods of real (white) Americans, from the depredations of the foreign horde.

    1. /alt-right

    2. Funny that you say that. Most of the people who actually harvest Maine blueberries are migrant workers. AKA Mexicans.

      1. See? Not only are the Mexicans driving our blueberry farmers out of business, they are forcing use to hire them too!
        American blueberries for America! *pounds fist*

        1. And don’t get me started on the fucking Canadians.

  15. can there be too many blueberries?

  16. One of the few times when lousy economics benefits me. Love cheap blueberries.

    1. It’s better than subsidize corn. I’ll give you that. At least blueberries are healthy.

  17. Aren’t you supposed to drum up demand BEFORE you produce more of the product?

  18. Really? Is it Libertarian to not produce something to drive up prices? Seems anti-libertarian to me. Who will be the one who goes without work to help everyone else get a better price?
    Coming up with blueberry wine, fruit leather or any other new product would be libertarian.
    The government subsidies are a completely different issue. Anti-libertarian to hand them out but assuming you paid in certainly not against the libertarian way to get your money back any way you can. I guess that wouldn’t make a very long article.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.