Wednesday, March 12, 2014
It's not the quantity but the quality, at least when it comes to this year's blueberry crop.
John Kohtala pours blueberries into a winnower that his wife, Amy, packs on Aug. 11, in the yard of Kohtala Blueberry Farm in Vienna. "We cultivate them, we rake them, we winnow them and we sell them," John Kohtala said of the late-summer endeavor by three generations of the family.
Staff photo by Andy Molloy
This year's crop is a little below average in terms of pounds, but better than average where the berry meets the taste bud, according to Marie Kohtala, owner of Kohtala Blueberry Farm in Vienna, which has been in the business for more than 55 years.
"The quality is there," Kohtala said. "They're sweet and good sized."
David Bell, executive director of the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine, has heard the same refrain from growers across the state.
"Some growers are saying they have the best crop they've ever had and others are saying they have a smaller crop," Bell said. "It's been an interesting year."
That interesting scenario began playing out last year in fields that were in their pruning year, the first of the two-year cropping cycle. It was a good growing year followed by an easy winter, Bell said.
"The vast majority of those fruit buds survived, so we had huge blooms early in May," he said.
But the weather soured in May, when the state experienced a week or more of cool wet weather during the pollination period.
"The honey bees we bring in are kind of like the tourists — they like it warm and sunny," Bell said.
Consequently, not all of the huge blooms that made it through the prune cycle were pollinated. The blooms that were pollinated, however, produced a high-quality crop that have benefited from the cool damp weather the state has experienced over the past few weeks.
Growers who brought in ample bees are now reporting high quality and high yield, Bell said.
"We expect to have a good crop here in Maine," Bell said. "We've really had ideal growing conditions the last two weeks."
The crop seems particularly dependent this year on where it is located in the state and even how it is situated on the land. South-facing slopes were at peak bloom during the cold weather in May appear to have a smaller crop, Bell said. North-facing fields, however, delayed peak bloom until the warm weather returned in May and produced a bigger crop.
The micro-climate changes even made a difference in fields in the same community.
Bob Hall, owner of Wild Blueberries in Vienna, said he harvested 28,200 pounds of berries, which is within striking distance of the company record of 29,000 pounds. Hall, who is Kohtala's nephew, said his field is higher in elevation, by more than 500 feet, than any other grower in Kennebec County. He said the additional elevation may have provided just enough temperature difference to protect his blossoms when other growers were experiencing a late frost in May.
"It's just a theory," he said. "If a frost hits a blossom, you won't get any berries."
Kohtala Farm last year produced about 11 tons of berries. Kohtala described that as a "bumper crop." Usually Kohtala's four grown children, and her grandchildren, can get the crop in by themselves. Last year they had to hire extra workers.
Kohtala said there seems to be a regular pattern of good years followed by down years. For the most part, she is unable to explain it.
"It's all kind of a guess," she said.
The crops have benefited from a dearth of disease and death this year. Kohtala said she never even had to spray her fields.
"Nobody understands why," she said. "We've really been fortunate. I'm thankful."
Kohtala finished the harvest Thursday, the day after Bell made his last delivery. He said nobody is as surprised as him about the success of his crop.
"When I looked at it in July, I didn't think it was going to be that good," he said. "I guess it was just a good blossom set and the bees really worked the days they could."
Craig Crosby — 621-5642