Wyman’s gift to establish first-of-its-kind wild blueberry research field at UMaine – Y. Zhang, R. Schattman, S. Birkel

Wild blueberries, an icon of Down East landscapes, will soon take root at the University of Maine’s new Wyman’s Wild Blueberry Research and Innovation Center.

The three-acre research and education site will be established off University Farm Road in Old Town over the coming year through a gift from Wyman’s, a 148-year-old family-owned business based in Milbridge, to the University of Maine Foundation. Wyman’s, which harvests and processes fruit throughout Down East and Midcoast Maine, is the number one brand of frozen fruit in the nation and distributes wild blueberries globally. The center’s new wild blueberry research field site will be unlike any other in Maine — or the world — with plots controlled for genotype, akin to research traditionally conducted in orchards or row crops.

“At Wyman’s, we view the genetic diversity of wild blueberries as a core strength, while recognizing the significant challenge it presents to production and research when compared to other crops. It’s paramount for us to understand the entire crop across a whole system or area because we don’t use a single variety,” says Bruce Hall, an agronomist at Wyman’s.

“The Wyman’s Wild Blueberry Research and Innovation Center will provide opportunities to develop innovative production techniques and the next generation of wild blueberry industry leaders through increased exposure and learning opportunities. By doing both, we saw an opportunity to grow our ongoing commitment to serving our local communities,” Hall says.

The center’s proximity to campus will improve year-round access for intensive long-term studies, and scientists who study issues related to, but not primarily focused on, Maine’s state fruit. It will also provide UMaine students with hands-on research and learning opportunities to ensure future generations of leaders in this field.

“The center will provide valuable opportunities to dive deep into intensive research, and involve undergraduate and graduate students in new studies. I’m especially excited by the research our team will be doing on the effects of climate change on wild blueberries, which will lead to information that the industry can use to adapt,” says Rachel Schattman, assistant professor of sustainable agriculture at UMaine.

Schattman led the project’s development in collaboration with Hall and UMaine faculty YongJiang Zhang, assistant professor of plant physiology; Phil Fanning, assistant professor of agricultural entomology; Seanna Annis, associate professor of mycology; Sean Birkel, research assistant professor in the Climate Change Institute, UMaine Cooperative Extension climate services specialist and Maine State climatologist; Lily Calderwood, assistant professor of horticulture and UMaine Extension wild blueberry specialist; and Diane Rowland, dean of the College of Natural Sciences, Forestry, and Agriculture, and director of the Maine Agricultural and Forest Experiment Station.

Wild blueberries have crept across Maine’s barrens for more than 10,000 years, following melting glaciers into gravelly, acidic soils that most plants find inhospitable. The Wabanaki people call them sahtayimínosi, and continue to manage and harvest berries today. The plants’ native roots create a bounty of genetic diversity, with thousands of distinct genotypes in a given field. This biodiversity provides a base-level of crop resilience, but makes the crop’s response to farm practices and experiments unpredictable.

Wyman’s will donate genetically distinct parent plants from its farm in Deblois that will be rooted in 6-by-6- and 12-by-12-foot raised beds at the new center in Old Town. The research team will fit each bed with clear plastic overhead and a moisture barrier below to create controlled microenvironments amid the field growing conditions the berries need to thrive. With the ability to control for precipitation, temperature and plant genetics, the research team will be able to study the crop with precision.

The diverse background of the research team creates an environment where interactions between the crop and the system it depends on, from precipitation to pollination, can be studied and integrated seamlessly. This represents research that is more similar to conditions and operations in a real-world setting, accelerating the delivery of research breakthroughs into practice.

Starting in 2024, Schattman will study how plant genetics influence plant production measures, like water and nutrient use. Her research will be informed by historic and projected rainfall patterns developed by Birkel. Zhang, in turn, is studying how different genotypes will respond to climate warming  to build resilience in the crop. He is also testing the use of biochar, a processed form of timber harvest byproducts, to improve water-holding capacity in the soil, which may ultimately help Maine’s growers hedge against drought. Fanning will study how climate change may impact pollinator behavior and health as warmer springs herald earlier blooms and more insect pathogens. Experts like Rowland, Annis and Calderwood will be on standby to help the research team respond as wild blueberry pests like weeds and mummy berry disease crop up.

This novel approach will help researchers and farmers understand how the wild environment the berries inhabit influences the crop and will ultimately inform advanced crop production techniques that benefit growers, consumers, and the environment.

“This center represents the future of the college and Experiment Station — shared resources, experiential learning, and the removal of disciplinary silos,” says Rowland, who pioneered crop management systems and transdisciplinary projects to address food security worldwide before becoming dean and director.

“These approaches compound the impact of investment in the university and better align research and education with real-world conditions, ultimately helping Maine to accelerate the delivery of research advancements into the hands of society.”

The partnership is the latest development for UMaine’s Maine Agricultural and Forest Experiment Station, which supports fundamental and applied research to improve the lives of Mainers. Station faculty and their students have conducted wild blueberry research since at least 1898, primarily conducted at the Experiment Station’s Blueberry Hill Farm in Jonesboro and on commercial growing operations ranging from one-half to more than 10,000 acres across the growing region.

The addition of the Wyman’s Center in Old Town will facilitate more detailed and controlled research investigating the factors that impact production, taste and nutritional value of wild blueberries. This information can then be scaled up at Blueberry Hill Farm to commercial levels, allowing the two facilities to complement and advance research in a new way. The Wyman’s Center will also facilitate more active and frequent involvement of a broader group of students in the research process, enhancing workforce development opportunities.