In recent years, the wild blueberries of coastal Maine haven’t been able to catch a break: destructive frost, pesty fruit flies, record-breaking heat, and drought have all wreaked havoc on the native fruit. And analyses by researchers at the University of Maine shows that climate change—the clear culprit—has heated up the Downeast region, where the berries are bountiful, faster than the rest of the state.
These lowbush berries are not faring as well as their cultivated cousins, which stand several feet tall and can be bred to tolerate certain environmental conditions or irrigated to supply more moisture. Maine’s lowbush berries, which have been growing naturally for tens of thousands of years in quickly draining soils, are near impossible to breed for environmental resistance.
485 independent growers in Maine depend on the crop for their income, and the University of Maine’s Wild Blueberry extension is working to provide solutions for the berries and their farmers, by combining applied science and outreach. At the Blueberry Hill Farm Lab, Rafa Tasnim, a doctorate candidate, sets up experimental warming biomes to determine the effects additional heat will have on the blueberries. She also tests layers of water soaking materials such as biochar, compost, and mulch which could help the plants retain enough moisture to thrive.
Should Tasnim’s experiments reveal a cost-effective solution to capture and hold moisture in the soils, specialists like Lily Calderwood will help the farmers adopt the innovations into their daily practices.
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Produced by Luke Groskin
Filmed by Nick Woodward
Music by Audio Network
Additional Footage and Stills Provided by University of Maine, Nancy Ghertner, Holland Haverkamp, Pond5, Shutterstock, NASA /MODIS US Forestry Service
Digital production by Daniel Peterschmidt
Special Thanks to Rafa Tasnim, Lily Calderwood, Brian Altvater, and the Passamaquoddy Blueberry Company