Editorial; A berry tough year

Maine’s beleaguered wild blueberry industry is suffering from trade dispute retaliation. This month, the state of Maine took appropriate action and petitioned the federal government to provide temporary relief to the growers. We hopefully await the outcome.

President Trump is exercising his unilateral authority to impose economic tariffs on a range of U.S. imports manufactured in explicitly identified countries. A target of his mistaken trade-deficit ire is U.S. imports from the People’s Republic of China. It is China’s retaliatory actions that effectively closed its market to the importation of wild Maine blueberries.

Over the last two years, managers of international product supply-chains have shifted sourcing to non-tariff nations like Vietnam, Taiwan and South Korea. Products once exported to Asian markets from the United States are now flowing from Canadian sources. Since the goals and objectives of the United States’ trade policy are fluid and difficult to pin down, only time will tell whether the collateral injury to the wild blueberry industry is all pain and no gain.

The Trump administration has established the Market Facilitation Program (MFP) to assist growers negatively affected by foreign nation trade retaliation. The program has already deemed producers of cherries, cranberries and grapes eligible for assistance; the state of Maine argues it is only fair to include direct assistance to growers of wild Maine blueberries.

Big agricultural conglomerates and investor groups have received taxpayer-funded federal subsidies for years. Maine taxpayers should seriously consider the proper role of government when it comes to handing out your tax dollars to subsidize mega agriculture.

The intense political campaigning underway this summer in the agriculture-dependent state of Iowa is a quadrennial reminder of the political third rail that is ag subsidy politics. Let’s make sure the MFP program focuses on the family-owned farmer dealing with the fallout of a tariff and trade dispute.

The Maine-grown wild blueberry industry is being hit from all sides. Worldwide production of cultivated and wild blueberries dramatically increased supply beyond market demand, resulting in a significant cut in prices paid to growers, a backlog of inventory held by blueberry processors and a reduction of acreage in active production.

Recently Maine’s wild blueberry industry received U.S. Department of Agriculture assistance with the purchase of sizable inventories of frozen berries. Though helpful in reducing previous season inventory the USDA assistance is not a model of sustainability for the industry.

The Maine Legislature recently enacted a bill to expand and diversify the Wild Blueberry Commission, which is the marketing arm of the growers. Now is the time for a refreshed marketing effort designed to build new markets and strengthen loyalty with discerning consumers. We can differentiate the uniquely wild, healthy and iconic Maine blueberry from all the rest and lock in the same brand identity and market support enjoyed by other iconic Maine foods.

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