The headlines said, “Maine Blueberry Farmers Struggling With Plummeting Prices.”
But really, there is so much more going on.
At the freezer processing facilities that are their main destination, Maine’s wild blueberries are selling for less. While growers got $1 a pound in 2011, last year’s price was down by close to two thirds.
Their problem is too much supply. Combine Canada’s blueberry exports with Maine’s own surplus and you get a market flooded with blueberries. Up from an average of 250 million pounds, the total is now 400 millions pounds.
Responding to the price drop, Maine’s growers are paying less attention to their blueberries. They are hiring fewer workers and using less fertilizer. The number of beehives they use for pollination is down by 20% from 2015-2016.
At the same time, they are try to sell as much as possible. The Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine has asked the federal government to buy up to 30 million pounds of their crop. In 2016, the U.S. government agreed to spend $13 million on the frozen blueberries that growers sold to them. Grower groups also are suggesting that blueberries be added to school lunches and exported to China and Korea.
Our Bottom Line: Emergent Order
Our look at blueberry surpluses took us to exports and price supports, beehives and fertilizer, and labor markets and school lunches. We have no central human design (except for the price supports) and what appears to be a rather disorderly process. And yet, out of it we get fewer blueberries when there are too many and more when there is not enough.
Economists Russ Roberts, Don Boudreaux and Michael Munger discussed the phenomenon during a podcast on emergent order.
Explaining emergent order further, Dr. Roberts wrote “A Wonderful Loaf.”
This is an excerpt:
“…For the unexpected change, what if today’s not like yesterday
It never is, though, is it? So who keeps chaos away?
Because there’s order all around us. Things look as if they’re planned
Like the supply of bread in a city–enough to match up with demand
And though flour is used for more than just bread, we never have to fight
Over where it goes and who gets what. So why do we sleep so well at night
Knowing nobody’s in charge, it looks like all is left to chance
Yet in New York, or London as well as Paris France
No one’s worried the shelves will be empty, we take supply for granted
But it’s a marvel, it’s a miracle, the world’s somehow enchanted…”
Instead of bread, the poem could have been about blueberries.
My sources and more: Thanks to The Washington Times for an overview of the blueberry story and to Maine’s newspapers here and here for the detail. The puzzle though would not be complete without this Econtalk podcast and transcript on emergent order. And yes,, I do recommend the animated version of “A Wonderful Loaf.”