In this July 27, 2012, file photo, wild blueberries await harvesting in Warren. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Wild blueberry fields have been warming at a rate that could have negative effects on crop health and yields, University of Maine researchers have found.

The team found that the Down East barrens are reacting to climate change faster than the state as a whole, and will require unique management strategies to ensure the long-term health of wild blueberry crops.

The research explored changes in climate change patterns, particularly in temperature and precipitation, at Down East wild blueberry fields in the past 40 years of growing seasons. Led by Rafa Tasnim, a Ph.D. student of ecology, this study is the first of its kind to assess climate change patterns for a fruit spanning different fields in a single production region.

Tasnim found that rising temperatures at Down East wild blueberry fields were speeding up evaporation and prevented water retention in the soil. Tasnim also found that fields were losing more water than they were retaining over a number of years.

Yongjiang Zhang, who collaborated on the study, said that it will be crucial to explore new ways to maintain the health of blueberry barrens.

“Our findings clearly show that wild blueberry fields are not immune from climate change, so growers will need to be prepared for future warming and a predicted increase in water loss,” Zhang said. “Researchers will also need to develop new and innovative solutions to make this cultural heritage sustainable under a quickly changing climate.”

The study found that fields located closer to the coast were warming faster than fields that were located farther inland.

A related study found that blueberry bushes are susceptible to other climate-related issues, and that warming air temperatures could have just as much effect on the plants as it does on the soil.

Researchers found that blueberry plants cannot photosynthesize well at temperatures that consistently exceed 72 degrees Fahrenheit. The fact that Maine has reported record-high temperatures over the past few years could see blueberry yields struggle in the future.

The UMaine team recommends that blueberry cultivators start to explore ways to irrigate their crops, as well as implementing soil management techniques to combat water loss.

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Leela Stockley

Leela Stockley is an alumna of the University of Maine. She was raised in northern Maine, and loves her cat Wesley, her puppy Percy and staying active in the Maine outdoors.