Paul Sweetland applies an herbicide to weeds growing in a blueberry field in Appleton on Friday Sept. 9, 2022. Maine blueberry farmers are finding ways to adapt to a warmer climate and change their crop management practices accordingly. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

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Paul Sweetland jumped out of a white truck early in the morning to start his work day in a blueberry field in Appleton. It was Sept. 9, and the field had already been picked, but like most farmers his work to manage the land continued. This particular barren, with its 30 acres of terrain, resembled many wild blueberry fields in Maine: rocky, hilly and expansive.

It’s those characteristics that make it difficult for the growers of Maine’s iconic crop to cope with a warming climate and hotter, drier summers. Droughts, such as the one that hit the blueberry industry this summer, can cause the berries to dry up, making them unsellable. But the solution — applying water — is not always feasible for small-scale blueberry growers who are the backbone of the industry.

The cost of irrigation is one thing. But there isn’t always a consistent water supply on hilltops. And if there is water, the topography can still make irrigating a challenge. For small-scale farmers who don’t have the infrastructure or capacity of larger companies, there is growing anxiety about crop quality and yield. Long-term weather trends suggest that blueberry fields will get sufficient water in August in only one year out of five, according to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

Sweetland, a farm manager for Coastal Blueberry Service, began working in blueberry fields at 8 years old, picking berries for 75 cents an hour to buy clothes for school. Now 68, he has worked his way up in the industry and evolved his techniques to manage one of Maine’s prized crops in a changing climate, such as by harvesting earlier.

Paul Sweetland has worked in blueberry fields for most of his life. “Farmers need to evolve and change their techniques,”  Sweetland said about adapting to the changing climate. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

“It was good that we started earlier this year because the berries did not stay on the vine. They dried up quickly,” Sweetland said. While he believes irrigation is worthwhile, operating the infrastructure would require other valuable, limited resources: time and labor. Currently the fields are not irrigated.

Blueberry growers are also mulching to help retain moisture and keeping an eye on the latest research for new techniques to better manage the crop. But those steps alone won’t solve the overarching problem. For that, only ample water will do.

“Irrigation is a really important practice that is going to be necessary in the future,” said Lily Calderwood, a wild blueberry specialist at the UMaine cooperative extension. A blueberry crop requires one inch of water per week for adequate crop health, and it has to “come in a trickle through the weeks and months of the season, rather than large rain events.”

But “wild blueberry farmers can’t afford irrigation,” Calderwood said. What’s more, “it’s really hard for them to consider irrigation when they don’t have any idea of where they will get the water from.”

The stakes are high. The antioxidant-rich superfood is produced by 485 growers in Maine who supply 99 percent of all the blueberries in the United States. The demand for wild blueberries has grown in recent years, in part due to an increased awareness of the berries’ health benefits. The high demand has put pressure on Maine’s small-scale, wild blueberry growers to produce more and better crops in unpredictable conditions.

Despite the evidence of an important crop in transition, there are still big questions left unanswered. Neither the Natural Resources Conservation Service within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Wild Blueberry Commission, nor the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry said they know how many acres of blueberry fields are currently being irrigated. They also haven’t gauged the availability of water sources for small-scale blueberry growers statewide, to see if irrigation is a practical solution for most in the industry.

As for an earlier harvest, it’s still not clear how much sooner the crop will be ready to be picked year to year. Growers also said the growing season is lengthening, but the time to harvest is shrinking due to drier conditions in the summer.

“We just don’t know when the season starts or ends,” said Shana Hanson, the coordinator for Belfast Blueberry Cooperative in Belfast. “Every year things are hard to predict, and we try to problem solve.”

Maine blueberry farmers are finding ways to adapt to a warmer climate and change their crop management practices accordingly. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

For the past two years, Nicolas Lindholm has had to start the harvest more than 10 days early due to drought conditions, and the window to get in all the berries has been shorter. Lindholm has been running Blue Hill Berry Co., a certified organic wild blueberry farm in Penobscot, with his wife, Ruth Fiske, for 26 years. Together they manage 50 acres across seven fields.

Lindholm said he has never before faced the type of challenges he has encountered the last few years. There was ample rainfall and more predictable conditions in the past, he said.

“Instead of about five weeks of a harvest window, we only have three weeks or less,” Lindholm said. The blueberries are processed on his farm and sold fresh, so the short harvest gives him little time to get everything done. Despite harvesting early, his farm still experienced crop losses this year.

It wasn’t until this summer that he started to be anxious about the future of wild blueberry production in Maine, which is largely handled by small-scale farmers like him.

“Fifty years from now, can these plants survive? I don’t think I know any more,” Lindholm said.

Irrigation is a long-term solution, but it would require tens of thousands of dollars of investment, labor and fuel, something Lindholm can’t afford on his own.

An earlier season also affects customers who sometimes don’t realize the berries are ready.

“We’re both managing the crops and trying to talk to our market and loyal customers and help educate them on the changes as well,” said Ron Howard, who manages Brodis Berries in Hope, owned by his mother-in-law Glenda Brodis. They plan to install an irrigation system on 25 acres, which will cost roughly $90,000. He said the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service has been helpful with its technical assistance.

Other farmers feel lucky they invested in irrigation. Allen Crabtree, the owner of Crabtree’s Blueberries in Sebago, has been managing nearly 1,500 highbush blueberries on his farm for 22 years. From mid-July to the end of September, his farm is open for customers to pick their own berries in fields that have access to a consistent water supply.

In the early 2000s, during a drought, Crabtree secured a 50-percent matching grant from the state department of agriculture to drill a well, since the house well wasn’t enough to support the blueberry crop. The extra water has produced plumper and sweeter berries, Crabtree said.

“As a result the drought has not affected us, but, had we not taken advantage of that, we would also be hurting,” he said.

Even with drip irrigation, Crabtree has still seen earlier harvests. While production at his farm hasn’t lessened, the effects of a warming climate and drought have led to the berries ripening faster.

“If you take care of them, prune them, fertilize them, water them and talk to them, there’s no reason they won’t last forever,” Crabtree said.

Wyman’s Wild Blueberries, a top-selling fruit brand, has more than doubled its production volume since 2020, said Bruce Hall, an agronomist for the company that owns blueberry barrens in both Maine and Canada. Installing an irrigation system was a substantial cost for the company, he said. He declined to say how much the company spent or the total acreage that Wyman’s irrigates.

A man tends to blueberry bushes.
Paul Sweetland applies an herbicide to weeds growing in a blueberry field in Appleton on Friday Sept. 9, 2022. Maine blueberry farmers are finding ways to adapt to a warmer climate and change their crop management practices accordingly. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

“If a farmer continues to approach this crop with the same mentality that they have for decades, they will continue to fail,” Hall said.

Many blueberry growers struggled this summer. The Wild Blueberry Commission, which aims to conserve and promote Maine’s blueberry industry, isn’t projecting what overall losses will be for 2022, but midcoast growers were hit hardest by the drought, Executive Director Eric Venturini said. He expects official figures to be available in December or January.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service does not set aside financial assistance specifically for small-scale wild blueberry farmers in Maine, but it does provide some site- and means-specific grants to farmers. Farmers looking to learn about emergency relief funds should contact their local farm service agency to see if they are eligible, said Thomas Kielbasa, a spokesperson for the agency.

Irrigation may not be a solution for all wild blueberry growers, especially if a water source is not available, so scientists are looking for other options.

Researchers study how different climates and environmental stressors affect the growth of blueberries at the University of Maine’s Blueberry Hill Farm in Jonesboro in July. Credit: Courtesy of the University of Maine

For the past five years, Yongjiang Zhang, an assistant professor of applied plant physiology at UMaine, has been leading a study about how wild blueberry crops respond to climate change and environmental stresses. He is finding that applying biochar is more effective than regular mulching for mitigating drought effects.

Biochar is a charcoal-like material that’s made from burning organic material from agricultural and forestry wastes.

Zhang and his team are testing different sources of biochar to see which is most effective. If successful, it could be an affordable solution available on a mass scale for wild blueberry farmers to apply to their fields, Zhang said.

His team has found that wild blueberry fields Down East are warming faster than the state as a whole. The rising temperatures have fueled increased water loss, which could threaten wild blueberry health.

“We really need to pay attention to protect the crops from climate change,” he said.

At the same time, wild blueberries have grown in Maine for thousands of years and survived. Wild blueberries are one of only three commercially grown crops native to North America, according to the UMaine cooperative extension.

Many farmers, such as Sweetand, continue to remain optimistic about the future. The environment adapts, and people do, too.

“Mother nature always has a way of adapting to everything,” Sweetland said. “So we have to adapt our practices to the environment.”

Mehr Sher is a Report for America corps member. Additional support for this reporting is provided by the Unity Foundation and donations by BDN readers.

Mehr Sher reports on the Maine environment. She is a Report for America corps member. Additional support for her reporting is provided by the Unity Foundation and donations by BDN readers.