Maine senator demands fairness for wild blueberry farmers after NBC News investigation

"If you’re a wild blueberry farmer with a 100-acre farm, you get zip," said Angus King. "If you’re a cranberry farmer you get $61,000. How is that fair?"
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Blueberry plants in Columbia Falls, Maine, in October.Sarah Rice / for NBC News

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By Kit Ramgopal

Sen. Angus King of Maine gave a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday urging the Trump administration to include wild blueberry farmers in its bailout payments for farmers affected by the trade war.

King’s request comes in the wake of an NBC News Investigation into the payment program that compared the federal assistance available to wild blueberry farmers and cranberry farmers. Cranberry farmers are eligible for bailout payments, but wild blueberry farmers are not. The investigation found that there is not an “exact” or “specific formula” for which crops win the lottery to receive bailout payments and which do not.

“Nobody can tell us what the formula is, what the rationale is,” said King, one of the Senate’s two independents. “Is it who had the biggest, most powerful lobby in Washington? Is it if you’re from a state that voted for the President in 2016? What’s the rationale?”

Click here to read the original story about cranberries and wild blueberries.

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Wild blueberries have been an important cash crop in Maine since before the Civil War, However, Maine is the only state with a wild blueberry industry, and it is a fraction of the size of the nation’s cranberry industry, which also has a strong lobby in Washington, D.C.

Wild blueberry farmers were not included in the trade war bailouts that began in 2018, despite losing a growing market in China to retaliatory tariffs that have now reached 80 percent for frozen berries. The only trade war assistance for the wild blueberry industry came in the form of USDA surplus purchase contracts — all of which went to a single, Canadian-owned company, NBC News found. Some Maine farmers told NBC News that the trade war has convinced them to give up on generations-old blueberry fields.

Sen. Angus King of Maine sent a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue urging them to help wild blueberry producers whose livelihood has been put at risk by the Trump administration's trade war with China.NBC News

Sen. King told NBC News he convened his staff several days ago to prioritize the issue , and that NBC’s investigation was “an important factor in both the decision to move forward on the issue” and in “providing data that supported the premise of the speech.”

“To me, the most important point is the apparent irrationality of this process,” said King.

King gave his Senate speech beside a roulette wheel labeled “Farm Bailout Lottery,” featuring a spinning pointer and five crops: blueberries, cranberries, apples, wheat and soybeans. King described a “double whammy” hitting Maine’s wild blueberry farmers: tariffs in China and a lack of bailout money at home.

“These are people who have given their lives to the land and they deserve to be supported by their government,” said King. “Not undermined, not challenged, not undercut by their government.”

King also sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, asking the administration to “immediately compensate producers for the trade war losses they have sustained.” King, along with the other three members of Maine’s congressional delegation, sent a similar letter requesting aid for wild blueberry farmers in July.

King’s efforts come just one day after Trump suggested the trade war could persist past the 2020 election. The $28 billion bailout package runs out of funds in January. After that, it will require additional funding to continue for a third year.

“If this is going to go on for another year, we’re talking billions and billions of dollars,” King told NBC. “When Congress passes an appropriations bill, generally it’s pretty specific about where the money is going to go. In this case, it seems to be a black box, and that’s what’s concerning.”