With less rain, blueberry growers face an expensive predicament

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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.

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