Commissioner Amanda Beal appeals to USDA to include wild blueberries in its Market Facilitation Program

July 10, 2019

For more information contact: Jim Britt at (207) 287-3156

In light of challenges faced by Maine's wild blueberry growers, Maine Agriculture Commissioner Amanda Beal appeals to USDA to include wild blueberries in its Market Facilitation Program

AUGUSTA, Maine - In May, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched its Market Facilitation Program (MFP) for 2019. Established during fall 2018 to assist growers negatively impacted by foreign nation trade retaliation, MFP will provide $14.5 billion in direct payments to producers in 2019. To date, wild blueberries are not included on USDA's MFP crop list. This week, Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Commissioner Amanda Beal sent a letter to USDA Undersecretary Bill Northey, asking for wild blueberries to be added to the list.

"Maine often receives little to no direct benefit when it comes to federal programs that historically support larger commodity producers in other parts of the country," said Commissioner Beal. "Our agriculture industries are deeply connected to the economic and cultural vitality of Maine, and they deserve this needed support; therefore, the USDA should include Maine wild blueberry growers in this important program, just as cherries, cranberries and fresh grape producers are."

Beal rightfully makes a case for wild blueberry inclusion, the full text of the letter follows:

July 8, 2019

Honorable Undersecretary Bill Northey United States Department of Agriculture 1400 Independence Ave., S.W. Washington, DC 20250

Re: Market Facilitation Program and Maine Wild Blueberries

Dear Undersecretary Northey,

Maines iconic wild blueberry crop has been threatened by declining prices for farmers in recent years and the situation has been exacerbated by global trade tensions. Maine is the only state in the U.S. that grows wild blueberries on a commercial scale. The industry is comprised of growers and processors who have worked hard to produce this healthy and delicious commodity for over 150 years. Faced by economic pressures and reduced prices, many growers have drastically cut back on harvesting their crop within the past two years and will continue to do so this coming crop season. (1) Some have left the business altogether -- a huge blow to local communities and economies in rural Downeast Maine. The reduction in acreage has precipitously dropped the supply of wild blueberries on the market. For these reasons it is my contention that wild blueberry growers would be well served by being included in USDAs Market Facilitation Program.

Between 2013 and 2016, the production of Maine and Canadian wild blueberries increased dramatically, with the total 2016 production increasing by 87% over 2013 (the majority of which was produced in Canada). (2) The resulting oversupply situation drove prices down drastically for Maine growers. (3) Despite this, exports to China of frozen Maine wild blueberries were slowly and steadily increasing. However, the China market effectively evaporated in early 2018. (4) Reliable and open access to foreign markets is a critical factor in enhancing global demand for Maine wild blueberries and driving positive price growth.

The Maine wild blueberry industry has received assistance from USDA in recent years through the Section 32 Bonus Buy program which helped reduce the oversupply of 2014-2016 berries. Similarly, USDA has purchased frozen wild blueberries through its Food Purchase and Distribution Program. However, as I am sure you are aware, neither of these programs directly finance the growers themselves. It is my understanding the Market Facilitation Program will allow for direct compensation to farmers. Notably, the Program already includes other fruit farmers: cherries and cranberries. Wild blueberries are similarly nutritious and versatile in that they are minimally processed and will keep for 18+ months when frozen. Moreover, due to the fact wild blueberry plants thrive in very acidic soil, they cannot simply be replaced by other diversified crops.

In light of the enormous struggles facing wild blueberry growers at present and the documented curtailment of harvested acreage, we actively encourage USDA to list them as qualified participants within the Market Facilitation Program. This would be an extremely positive and welcome step to assist Maine growers in what has been an incredibly stressful and difficult time period of trade tensions.

Thank you for your consideration. I would be happy to answer any questions that you or your staff may have regarding the Maine wild blueberry industry.

Very Truly Yours, Amanda Beal Commissioner Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry

cc: Hon. Secretary Sonny Perdue, USDA Hon. Senator Susan Collins Hon. Senator Angus King Hon. Representative Chellie Pingree Hon. Representative Jared Golden David Lavway, Director Maine FSA

(1) According to 2017 USDA Census data, wild blueberry acreage has dropped from 44,000 acres to 38,660 since 2012. Small growers in particular have reduced their acreage as the cost of production have exceeded the price for their product. We anticipate that records of total managed acreage could be provided by growers to USDA to effectuate participation in the Market Facilitation Program. (2) University of Maine Cooperative Extension (3) https://www.nass.usda.gov (4) https://bangordailynews.com