Climate Change Threatens Maine’s Wild Blueberries 

Photo: University of Maine

By Natasha Lasky, ODP Staff Writer

Maine’s wild blueberries may be in trouble. Scientists at the University of Maine have found that the state’s blueberry fields are warming at a much faster rate than the rest of New England. This could dry out the soil, threatening the beloved berries and the farmers who grow them. The team analyzed 40 years of annual data for maximum, minimum, and average temperature and precipitation for 26 wild blueberry fields. They found that the state increased in average temperature by just less than two degrees Fahrenheit, while the states’ blueberry fields increased by 2.34 degrees. 

Why this Matters: Wild blueberries are much smaller than their domestic counterparts, and are frozen for use in smoothies or other processed food products. Having a surplus of antioxidants, they’re widely considered to be a “superfood,” and Maine is the only state in the US that produces them commercially.  The blueberry sector contributes around $250 million in direct and indirect economic activity to Maine annually, but that has been dwindling as of late. Farmers produced 47.4 million pounds of Maine wild blueberries last year, and that was the lowest number since 2004. Losing this crop would be a huge financial toll on the state, and the wild blueberry would join other native fruits like salmonberries and ground cherries that are also under threat due to climate change. 

Feeling Blue About Blueberries?

What the scientists found was that even a small temperature difference is significant because rising temperatures that lead to water deficits would put the blueberries at risk, according to Rafa Tasnim, of the University of Maine, who was the study’s lead author. Lack of water could result in smaller crop sizes and blueberries that are less likely to survive to be harvested.  “What we are expecting is the temperature is going to increase a lot and we will not get as much rainfall in the summertime especially,” Tasnim told the Associated Press, who led the research team that published the study. “What that will mean for the wild blueberry plants is they will be water-stressed.”  The good news is that growers of wild blueberries can find a way to mitigate crop production and prepare for future warming, through irrigation and fertilizer use. Farmers could also use remote sensing technology that helps farmers spot areas in a blueberry field that need water and help growers identify insufficient water supplies and evaluate the need for irrigation. “With increasing temperatures, that will probably be the trend into the future,” David Yarborough, emeritus professor of horticulture with the University of Maine, told the AP. “What we’re going to do about it is a good question,” he said.

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