PORTLAND, Maine - In the face of industry pressure, the federal government is spending up to $4.4 million to complete a plan to help Maine's blueberry industry by buying surplus crop.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture said in April it would buy up to $13 million in wild blueberries to help with falling prices and oversupply. Wild blueberries are one of Maine's signature exports, and recent years of large harvests have left the industry with excess berries.
The USDA has bought $8.6 million in blueberries, the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine said.
Commission Executive Director Nancy McBrady said the group requested the federal agency spend the rest of the money. A USDA spokeswoman confirmed to The Associated Press on Wednesday that the agency is working to complete the purchase.
"It's immensely helpful to our industry," McBrady said. "It's sort of an oversupply situation, and we also face competition from cultivated blueberries."
Wild blueberries are different from cultivated blueberries in that they're smaller, have a more intense taste and are richer in antioxidants. Maine is by far the U.S.'s biggest producer of wild blueberries, which are also harvested in Atlantic Canada provinces.
The USDA's purchase of wild blueberries could eventually affect prices to consumers, which have been lower in recent years because of the big harvests and competition from Canada, where the dollar is weaker. Frozen wild blueberries slid from 90 cents per pound in 2011 to 60 cents per pound in 2014, the blueberry commission has said.
The USDA uses its "bonus buy" program to assist food producers and provide food for charitable organizations.
Ed Flanagan, chief executive officer of wild blueberry giant Wyman's of Maine, said the USDA's $8.4 million purchase followed a public bidding process in June. He said he hopes the agency completes the full purchase, as this year could yield another big crop. Harvesting typically happens in late July and early August.
"If this crop turns out to be as significant as we think," Flanagan said, "I think that will keep the desire on the industry's part high for them to complete it."