Wild at heart

- Last updated on GMT

Wild at heart
They might be a marketer's dream, but wild blueberries can sometimes be a grower's nightmare, says Elaine Watson

Growing food can be like going into battle - whether it's with the elements, flying pests, encroaching weeds or simply market forces. But if the wild blueberry is your crop of choice (where you can add black bears to the list of local predators), the odds are stacked even more heavily against you.

Unlike their larger, and blander, cultivated counterparts, antioxidant-packed wild blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium​) stubbornly refuse to grow outside a tiny portion of the north-eastern seaboard (Maine, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Quebec). Equally inconveniently, they grow on the ground - and only where and when they feel like it.

As for the ground in question, "wild blueberry plants grow in areas of sandy, gravely, well-drained soils with high acidity that are generally unsuitable for other types of agriculture", says a recent paper from the Canadian government. This, notes one blueberry grower in the region, is a polite way of saying that "bugger-all else will grow in ground as awful as this"

Indeed, the industry almost started by accident, observes Dave Sangster, executive director of the Wild Blueberry Institute in Nova Scotia. Wild blueberries have grown on the East Coast for centuries - they used to can them for soldiers in the American Civil War, he says. "But it's only really since the Second World War that the Canadian government started assisting growers trying to develop new land and they became commercially harvested. The soil is so bad here that many people trying to grow conventional crops just abandoned the land and gave up. As it started to return to forest, more blueberries started springing up."

While wild blueberries' unique combination of taste, health, convenience and provenance has driven up sales volumes from just 40Mlbs to a whopping 230Mlbs+ in the last 25 years, it has also caused some sleepless nights for growers tasked with urging the unco-operative blueberry plants in their care to go forth and multiply in order to keep up with rocketing demand.

As Peter Rideout, planning and development officer at the Canadian government's Agriculture, Fisheries and Aquaculture department, likes to remind visitors to blueberryland (as it's known locally), patience is a virtue that you need in bucket loads if you want to cash in on this particular superfruit. Previously forested or brush land may take up to 10 years before blueberry plants produce income, which means supply cannot just be turned on like a tap if demand rises (you can't grow them from seed). While yields have improved significantly in the last 20 years, there are no magic bullets. With an acre of land producing anything from 800lbs to 8,000lbs, all the grower can do is stack the odds in his favour by drafting in vast legions of honeybees to pollinate the flowers and try and keep his land reasonably clear of competing flora and fauna in order to give the blueberry plants the best possible chances of success.

Snow, sunshine and rain

Everything then hinges on the weather - wild blueberries like snow cover in winter to protect them, sunshine in the spring to encourage pollination, and adequate rainfall in the summer, says David Hoffman, chief executive of the region's biggest blueberry processor Oxford Food Group, and president of the Canadian arm of trade association WBANA (Wild Blueberry Association of North America).

Because the berries are harvested only once every two years, growers will typically divide up their land into two and harvest each half in alternate years in order to supply the market annually, and then 'mow' or prune the plants after each harvest to continue the cycle.

While supply has historically lagged behind demand as awareness of wild blueberries has rocketed, this year's harvest is looking very promising, predicts Hoffman, who drafted in a whopping 65,000 bee hives to line the blueberry fields in his care this spring to ensure plants were pollinated.

Some growers are still content to rely on native insects to pollinate their bushes, which gradually spread through slow-growing, underground stems called rhizomes, says Hoffman. "But we are convinced that drafting in the bees has made a material difference."

The other major breakthrough in recent years has been the mechanisation of the harvesting process, which incredibly, until the early 1980s, was largely done by hand with small rakes - something that wouldn't be possible today owing to the sheer volume of berries and the lack of available labour to harvest them, says Hoffman.

Once picked, the race is then on to transport the berries from the fields to processing plants where they are cleaned, sorted and individually quick frozen (IQF) in vast freezing tunnels which, like most of blueberryland, work round the clock in the harvesting season (August through to mid-September). Once frozen, they are de-stemmed, screened, packaged in 30lb boxes and shipped directly to food manufacturers. The rest are further processed into concentrates, pureés and fruit preparations, infused with sugar or apple juice or dried or powdered, where they will ultimately end up in everything from juices, jams and pie fillings to muffins, chocolate bars, cereal bars, yoghurts, desserts and smoothies.

The wild card

While any WBANA member worth his salt can wax lyrical about provenance, the 'wild' tag is not simply a ploy to con gullible food manufacturers into paying over the odds for something they could buy (ie. cultivated blueberries) at a lower price, stresses Hoffman. "There's actually a very practical difference between wild and highbush cultivated berries. Wild blueberries are smaller and tangier, which means you get more antioxidants by volume (because the good bits are in the skins), a better colour and taste and more berries per product." Take a blueberry muffin, he points out. What would you rather see when you break it in half: a handful of berries or a couple of large ones stuck near the bottom?

On top of this you have the wild blueberry's green credentials: not a card that WBANA is currently playing, but certainly one that it could in future, says Dr David Percival, a professor at Nova Scotia Agricultural College. "Wild blueberries are good carbon sequesters, and because the inputs are relatively low compared to many other fruits, their carbon footprint is low. It will also get lower, as we work to reduce and ultimately eliminate pesticide use."

Indeed Percival, who has whiled away many a happy hour in blueberryland examining the plants for telltale signs of attack from leaf rust or Septoria, a fungal disease that blights many field crops, is now convinced the industry can move away from chemicals altogether over time through field sanitation techniques that use heat treatments or competing bacteria or fungi to keep the blight at bay.

However, the industry remains at a loss over what to do to tackle a more furry predator: the native black bear, which has a frustrating penchant for snacking on blueberries and rolling all over (and destroying) the plants. Still more irritating is its tendency to interfere with bee hives essential for the pollination of crops, says Barbara Hagell from Rainbow Farms, a medium-sized grower and processor of blueberries in Nova Scotia.

"The bears here don't attack humans, but you don't want to risk upsetting one. Put it this way: if you're out in the blueberry fields and come face to face with a bear eating your berries, you're not going to argue with it."

Health and nutrition

While blueberries are already marketed as a 'superfruit' owing to their high levels of free-radical-busting antioxidants, more specific health claims relating to vision, mental acuity and cardiovascular health are probably some years away from gaining regulatory approval, says Jane McDonald, who works at the Atlantic Food and Horticulture Research Centre in Kentville, Nova Scotia.

"If you want to make claims, you need to have compelling evidence from human studies as well as epidemiological [population] studies, which are very expensive. So for us, it's a case of pooling resources and pumping them into fields where we are most likely to generate results, quickly."

But there are so many possible avenues to go down, that this in itself can be difficult, with blueberries linked to everything from improving night vision and reducing LDL ('bad') cholesterol to helping fight age-related macular degeneration, urinary tract infections and some cancers, she says.

The most headline-grabbing work to date is rat studies from Tufts University in the US showing that blueberry supplementation has a protective effect on the brain, making rats less likely to suffer the deleterious effects of ageing on memory and motor skills. Indeed, the data indicated that it may even be possible to overcome genetic predispositions to Alzheimer's through diet, a claim, which if proved in human studies could have incredibly exciting - and lucrative - implications.

McDonald and her team are now developing a new rat study to determine precisely which compounds in the berries may be responsible for the neurological effects.

But far more work - and expensive clinical studies - are needed before we are likely to see any health claims to this effect, admits McDonald, who has been studying the health benefits of wild blueberries for almost 30 years and still feels like she has "barely scratched the surface"

Food and drink applications

Although prices vary according to the harvest and the price of comparable fruits, wild blueberries typically command a small premium over their cultivated counterparts, but are in turn far better suited to food and drink applications owing to their superior taste and smaller size, says Janet Iveson, technical sales representative at UK-based fruit ingredients giant JO Sims.

The fact that they are wild further adds to their appeal, enabling marketers to build a more compelling story, she adds. "They are very much in demand at the moment - and wild is definitely the preferred flavour if you are talking about drinks and smoothies. You also get a better colour from the same weight as there is proportionately more skin (where the pigment is) in the smaller wild berries."

While wild blueberries are not cheap compared to some other fruits - demand continues to grow because consumers have bought into the health benefits and are used to paying a premium for the fresh (cultivated) varieties in supermarkets, says Iveson. "In a smoothie, the 'filler' fruits might vary to meet a price point, but blueberries would be the selling point, so you wouldn't replace them with something cheaper."

Unlike some other so-called superfruits, blueberries are very versatile and naturally sweet and do not require manufacturers to add lots of sugar to make them palatable, adds Iveson. Her colleague Andrew Cooknell is also seeing strong demand for sugar- and juice-infused wild blueberries in cereals, cereal bars and sachets of instant oat cereals. Blueberries also have a certain panache that makes them suitable for more indulgent products like premium dark chocolate or premium desserts, he adds.

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