Homer group seeks Wrangell blueberries
A Homer-based group is seeking to use Wrangell blueberries as an economic development tool – and a way of producing a healthy product for users around the globe.
A Homer-based group is seeking help from Wrangellites in their effort to bring natural blueberry products to the local, regional and international markets.
Trail Mountain Harvesters is a company that organizes harvests of wild berries and herbs for Denali BioTechnologies, Inc., a manufacturer of premium dietary supplement ingredients owned by Dr. Maureen McKenzie, also of Homer.
According to TMH field purchasing supervisor Bob Fenex, his company is interested in recruiting Wrangellites and others in Southeast to collect the berries, which are high in their anti-oxidant properties, for sale to Denali.
“In different villages and towns over the last seven years, we’ve been growing with leaps and bounds and put money into the economic development of berries in the communities,” he said. “We buy their berries and hire brokers in those towns to pay around 50 cents a pound for them.”
Now that he is retired, Fenex said the opportunity to help Dr. McKenzie, who is also his neighbor, was too good to pass up.
“Since I’ve retired, it’s been a great chance for me to help her do this,” he added.
Dr. McKenzie holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Rutgers, the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and Princeton University, as well as an M.S. in Food Science from Rutgers.
“Sometime ago, I spoke with Mayor Maxand about having the people in Wrangell getting involved in a blueberry harvest for my principal product, which is AuroraBlue,” she said. “That was sort of a prelude to other opportunities to harvest many other types of products that grow here, like rose hips, dandelions, and salmon bone, as well as other products available is Southeast.”
AuroraBlue is an antioxidant product developed and marketed by McKenzie and Denali BioTechnologies, and claim it is a proprietary blend of wild Vaccinium species of blueberries, huckleberries and bilberries, which are hand-picked from Alaska’s wilderness.
“There is a long list of harvest products that we are interested in from the community of Wrangell, and we’ve talked about the possibility of placing a Refractance Window Dryer into operation due to the borough’s reasonably priced energy,” she added. “That came up as part of economic development beyond the harvest capabilities.”
The entire idea of an outside group harvesting berries and other traditionally Native foods in Wrangell has some members of the Tlingit community raising an issue with the plan.
After hearing about the plan, the Wrangell Cooperative Association Board of Directors voted on Aug. 16 to disavow the plan in Wrangell.
“The reason we do not support outsiders picking berries in Wrangell is that we pick for our Elders,” Lovey Brock said. “And the berries have been pretty scarce the last couple of years because we haven’t had enough sun. Also, we use the berries for subsistence, and we have talked to other tribes who have told us that these types of operations have wiped out blueberries in the places they have gone into. We don’t want that to happen here, so we won’t support this.”
Fenex, who recently retired from the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, added that he was serious about maintaining a balance with traditional uses of the food staple.
“We do not want to cut into any subsistence,” he added. “That comes first.”
Maxand also weighed in on the subsistence concept of picking blueberries in the borough.
“Ultimately, if any commercial scale harvest of blueberries were to happen on the island, there would need to be some understanding that certain areas should be preserved for use by residents who gather for traditional or subsistence use,” he added. “A lot of people berry pick in Wrangell, and under no circumstances should their access to this resource be limited.”
Maxand, for his part, thinks the idea will help bring sustainable business to the community as well.
“I think anytime we can support industries that are sustainable, and use the resources from our forests, we should do so,” Maxand said. “Whether they be blueberries, fish or timber, we should take advantage of those opportunities.”
Maxand also said acquiring the former mill-site property on Zimovia Highway could go a long way towards developing the local economy.
“I think there are businesses that are looking for a place like Wrangell to move and operate, but finding industrial space is tough,” he added. “That is why we’re looking at the former 6-mile mill site. The more businesses we can attract, the stronger our economy becomes and that’s good for the long term.”