PEI

'I've never seen prices this low': P.E.I. blueberry crop smaller, worth less

P.E.I.'s blueberry crop will be smaller than in recent years after drought conditions this summer, but growers say they're being offered prices so low they'll lose money 'on every pound they pick'.

'There could be growers exit the industry'

'The total crop may be down somewhere between 20 to 30 per cent compared to last year,' says P.E.I.'s John Handrahan of the region's blueberry crop. (CBC)

P.E.I.'s blueberry crop will be smaller than in recent years after drought conditions this summer, but growers say they're being offered prices so low they'll lose money on every pound they pick. 

Most of the Island's 120 blueberry growers including John Handrahan, president of the P.E.I. Wild Blueberry Growers Association, have just begun harvesting in the last week but are seeing fields with 10 to 20 per cent fewer berries. 

"What I've seen so far is the crop does seem to be smaller than in the last two years," he said. "The reports I'm hearing from other parts of the province are the same. The berries are small, and from the lack of rain they're actually lighter [in weight]."

The dry weather also reduced crop sizes in Maine, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, Handrahan said.

"The total crop may be down somewhere between 20 to 30 per cent compared to last year," he said. 

While the principles of supply and demand might lead growers to expect a higher price for the scarcer berries, that's not the case. 

'Losing money on every pound'

Processors are offering farmers 33 per cent less than last year, Handrahan said — 20 cents per pound rather than 30 cents. 

After 3 years of bumper crops led to an oversupply of blueberries, prices this year are even lower than last year says Island grower John Handrahan. (CBC)

At that price, he said, "growers are losing money on every pound they pick." Even at 30 cents, he said farmers are just breaking even.

"At this point, many growers are upset, angry or frustrated," he said. 

Wyman's is one of the Island's two biggest blueberry buyers. Homer Woodward, vice-president of operations at Wyman's, said even though this year's crop will be smaller, it's still huge. 

"It's estimated to be the fourth-largest crop we've ever seen in the wild blueberry industry," Woodward said. 

Demand for blueberries just hasn't been able to match the record crops the last several years, he said. 

"We've taken a lot of our inefficient acres out of production, and so have a lot of our growers," said Woodward. He's anticipating at least another year — and as many as three years — of challenging market conditions.

Handrahan concurs that some growers are talking about "resting the land." 

"They would mow their fields down, not put any crop inputs into them, and just keep the land mowed until the price comes back up, till it becomes a profitable venture again. I've spoken to a number of growers that that's their current plan."

"There may be more money coming later on, maybe October, November or January, but at this point the prices they're being offered are considerably lower than last year," Handrahan said. 

'Could be growers exit'

"There could be growers exit the industry," Handrahan added. "I've never seen prices this low." 

Processors may have blueberries left in storage from last year, he said, but they don't share that information with growers — adding Island growers have just had three consecutive years of bumper crops.

Wyman's said it has some left over from last year, but Woodward said the company is "comfortable with the inventories we have."

The industry set a record last year of approximately 409 million pounds harvested in Maine, Quebec and the Maritimes, he said, compared to a normal annual harvest of about 300 million pounds. Handrahan estimates this year's combined crop will be less than 300 million. 

About 4,047 hectares (10,000 acres) of blueberries are grown on the Island, Handrahan said.

With files from Laura Chapin

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