Like a lot of kids, after spending his childhood summers working odd jobs around the family business, Merrill Blueberry Farms, Todd Merrill set off to forge his own path as soon as he had a chance.
“When you’re 22, you decide that there’s more to the world than Ellsworth Maine,” said Merrill. After college, he set off for Utah, and spent the next 15 years traveling and building a career of his own.
By 2008, he was settled in Portland, Maine, a married father of two, and had a decade of experience working in the software industry. He was happily working in development for Tyler Technologies when the Wild Blueberry barren drew him back.
Merrill’s dad was looking to retire, and his uncle was in declining health. They asked him to return to the business. If he said no, they would hire someone from outside the family to run the business his great grandfather had started in 1925—or they would sell it.
While Merrill enjoyed his career and moving his family from Portland to Ellsworth two hours up the coast would be a big transition, he was hungering for so many of the benefits that the opportunity created.
“I knew that I’d have a lot more independence, and I was looking forward to that,” he said. “I knew the business well. I knew the area well, and that outweighed any apprehension I had.”
Merrill moved to Ellsworth in time for the July 2008 Wild Blueberry harvest. He worked as general manager before taking the reigns as president in 2009 and becoming the fourth generation to lead the company— working alongside his cousin and brother in law.
Under Merrill’s leadership, Merrill Blueberry Farms has prospered. The year-round staff of 10 grows to up to 150 people during the harvest season.
The company owns roughly 800 acres of Wild Blueberry fields in Hancock and Waldo counties. The plant in Hancock County processes between 4 to 8 million pounds a year of berries from Merrill’s fields, plus berries from growers whose fields they maintain, and berries from other growers. “It’s a good mix,” said Merrill. “Since it’s geographically spread out, if one area has a frost or a drought, it’s likely that another area of Maine will be just fine.”
Merrill is eyeing organic as the next opportunity for growth. Currently, just 3 to 5% of Merrill’s processing volume is organic, but he expects that to jump to 20% in the years ahead, and he is always looking to bring on more organic growers to keep up with the ever-increasing demand.
“More organic land is coming into production over the next few years, and it’s rising more sharply as farmers are converting more acreage from conventional to organic,” he said.
What’s more, he’s seen an increasing appetite from consumers.
“Every year we have new customers asking for organic,” he says.
The demand that Merrill is seeing reflects a national trend. Organic fresh fruit sales in groceries reached $1.6 billion in 2017, with volume and dollar sales up 12.6 percent compared to 2016, according to research conducted by the Organic Produce Network and Nielson. Berries—which include strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries—were the second-highest category of organic produce sales, with $580.8 million in sales in 2017.Volume was up by 21.9% over 2016.
Even though all Wild Blueberries aren’t certified organic, they are a low-input crop and perfectly positioned to meet the growing demand for clean, high-quality foods with a smaller carbon footprint. In groundbreaking Power of Wild research, consumers cite “wild” as the best descriptor of “real or whole foods” delivered in the purest form in which food can exist.
Consumers believe Wild Blueberries make a product taste better, healthier, and more sustainable, and consumers feel better about themselves when eating it. And they’re more likely to buy more and pay more for it. Nearly two-thirds (61%) of consumers report that they would be more apt to buy a product if it contained Wild Blueberries vs. just blueberries. Nearly two-thirds (63%) reported that they believed that products made with Wild Blueberries were more sustainable. That belief was even stronger—77%— among Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability (LOHAS) consumers, —a $290 billion market that represents or 1 in 4 adult Americans, or 41 million people.
Even beyond growing the business that the three generations before him had built, Merrill is enjoying the opportunity to invest in the next generation of Merrills.
Since returning to the family business, he no longer has the commutes and headaches that go along with urban living. He has the flexibility to be involved in the everyday activities of his kids, who now number three, and are ages 8, 10, and 12.
Every once in a while, one of his children will mention that they want to work in Wild Blueberries when they get older. But Merrill isn’t pushing it. “My father gave me a long leash,” he said. “I’d much rather have them pursue something they want first, then if they still choose to come back to the family business, it is on their own terms…not because they feel it is an obligation.”
Editor's Note: This post was sponsored by the Wild Blueberry Association of North America. To learn more about the story of Wild Blueberries, visit https://www.wildblueberries.com/the-better-blueberry/the-story-of-wild/