News Feature

Blue Hill
Originally published in The Weekly Packet, July 18, 2013
Weather, pests make a tough year for Peninsula berry crop yields

by Rich Hewitt

Jeff Beardsworth was already behind the eight ball when this strawberry season began at Homewood Farm.

A wet spring a year ago, when he was planting this year’s bearing plants, left bare spots in the rows.

“We lost about 20 percent of the crop to the wet spring last year,” he said. “Everything was going good this spring, and then we got all that rain in June. I lost another 25 percent.”

So he was down almost half his crop, before his pick-your-own season got started.

People still came, he said, but there just weren’t enough berries to go around. By the time the sun came out, the berries were so wet that they began to mold. He was able to freeze some berries, but his wholesale season was shortened by about one-third from the normal three and a half weeks down to two and a half.

“It wasn’t our worst season,” he said. “But we’ve had a lot better.”

That seems to be the story for most of the state. According to David Handley, a small fruit and vegetable expert with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, the strawberry season was “just fair.”

“It wasn’t a disaster, but it certainly did not live up to the promise of earlier in the spring,” Handley said.

And a lot of the blame goes to the weather.

There were good conditions in the fall, Handley said, and plants had been growing well. But, a cold, open winter for the first part up until the blizzard in January caused some damage to the plants.

“Things began to perk up in the spring and the crop looked nice, but then it started raining,” Handley said.

The rain not only affected the flavor of the ripening berries, in many places, it kept people from coming out to pick them.

“When it’s pouring hard, going out to pick is not on the top of your list,” he said. “With no pickers, a lot of the fruit went by because nobody picked it.”

This area was a little drier than the extreme southern Maine, so growers may have gotten a little extra time to extend the season a little, but, for the most part, the season is over.

Meanwhile, the weather has also played a role in the upcoming blueberry crop, although it is still too early for anyone to make predictions about the crop. And while the weather has complicated the growing season, it may be a newcomer pest that holds the most danger for the blueberries this year.

Conditions were good early in the spring, according to David Yarborough, a blueberry specialist with the cooperative extension. Dry weather in the late spring kept mummyberry disease at bay and conditions were right for a good pollination.

“Early on we had a tremendous bloom,” Yarborough said. “Then we had 10 days in a row of rain.”

Although the industry brought in 75,000 hives this year—a record number—the bees weren’t flying during the rainy times. It remains to be seen what effect that has had on the crop.

Beardsworth said he anticipates only about half the normal crop from the fields he rakes in Blue Hill and Penobscot, mainly because the plants were not pollinated.

“The blossom only lasts five days,” he said. “If it rains for six to 10 days during that time, there’s never going to be berries on it.”

And while mummyberry—a fungus that causes berries to discolor and shrivel up—was less of a problem than it could have been, the wet weather increased cases of blossom blight, which in some fields, Yarborough said, has damaged as much as half the crop.

Those weather-related factors have created challenging conditions for the developing berries that will likely affect the overall crop. Annie Allen at G.M. Allen & Son in Orland said she expects they’ll have just an average crop this year.

“It’s hard to tell,” she said. “With the dry spell we’re having now, anything can happen.”

The berries need the warmth. According to Yarborough, however, temperatures in the 70s and 80s with about an inch of rain a week would be optimal conditions. And if it rains at night, he added, that would be better.

But even if the weather cooperates, a new pest, the spotted wing drosiphila may pose an even bigger danger to the crop.

Spotted wing drosiphila, or SWD, is an Asian fruit fly that was first discovered in California in 2008 and moved quickly across the country arriving in New England, including Maine, in 2011. Last year, the SWD was found in all areas of the state where researchers set out traps for them.

“It will be coming here,” Allen said. “They’ve got traps out to monitor it and we’re taking precautions to handle it. But it is coming.”

Unlike regular fruit flies, which are attracted to rotting fruit, the female SWD attack fresh, ripening fruit using a serrated, saw-like appendage called an ovipositor to puncture the fruit and lay eggs under the skin. It is attracted to most soft fruits including strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries.

SWD is prolific and has a seven-day turnaround for one generation, so multiple generations can be produced in a single season, although populations don’t generally reach damaging levels until later in the summer. Some pesticides, including some approved for organic growers, have been effective in controlling SWD, and Yarborough said spraying is necessary.

“With this pest, if you’re not spraying, you could lose half your crop,” he said.

Because the SWD is so prolific, regular and repeated sprayings are necessary. According to some reports, it requires spraying twice a week in order to keep the pest in check. So, growers can expect to be spraying more than normal throughout the rest of the season, he said.