Cranberry farmers upbeat about harvest despite challenges

Associated Press
According to the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association, the cranberry industry provides nearly $1 billion in annual revenue for Wisconsin, which produces over half the world's supply of this tart and tiny fruit.

BOSTON (AP) – Cranberry growers in Wisconsin and Massachusetts are optimistic about the upcoming harvest despite an up-and-down growing season.

Brian Wick, executive director for the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers' Association, said Thursday that local farmers anticipate producing more than two million barrels of fruit this year, or roughly 1% more over last year's harvest. 

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture projected Massachusetts growers would produce a record 2.4 million barrels of cranberries this year, up about 11% from last year. Overall, the agency anticipates nearly 9 million barrels of fruit will be harvested nationwide, up about 13% from last year. A barrel equals 100 pounds of cranberries.

But Wick cautions the USDA estimates are based on information gathered from growers earlier in the year. He said a more accurate projection of crop production comes from the Cranberry Marketing Committee, a federally-authorized industry group based in Wareham, Massachusetts.

According to this week’s projections by the US Cranberry Marketing Committee (CMC), Wisconsin growers will harvest an estimated 5.56 million barrels of fruit this fall. This would mark the 26th consecutive year that Wisconsin has led the nation in cranberry production.

Facing a continued glut of cranberries and depressed prices, in 2017 the cranberry industry asked federal officials in 2017 to take unusual steps aimed at reducing production. The industry’s U.S. Cranberry Marketing Committee asked the USDA to cap the amount of cranberries grown in 2018 at 75% of the normal crop. The committee also has asked the USDA to have cranberry companies withhold 15% of the 2017 crop from the marketplace.

Measures like this have been used only a handful of times in the last 50 years. The last time was in about 2001, according to industry sources. Industry officials said rationale behind the decision said another bountiful harvest would put further pressure on growers that are already struggling financially.

Another large harvest this fall from Wisconsin cranberry bogs typically account for more than half of the cranberries harvested nationwide, adding to a surplus the industry has faced for the past several years.

Demand up

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. cranberry industry has seen demand increases in 2020, particularly for in-home purchases, with domestic sales up about 8% from this time last year. That increase in demand paired with supply control and marketing efforts implemented by the industry in recent years has brought inventories more in line with demand.

“As U.S. consumers are searching for products that are both shelf-stable and healthy amid the current pandemic, we’re seeing that many people are rediscovering a love for cranberry products,” said Tom Lochner, executive director of the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association (WSCGA) in a news release. “The industry is working together to capitalize on that renewed interest by exploring new products and educating consumers about the many ways cranberries can be incorporated into meals.”

The harvest projection is part of the approximately 8.75 million barrels of cranberries expected nationwide, up 15 percent from 2019. Last year, Wisconsin growers had a crop of 4.67 million barrels. This year’s projections are dependent on good growing conditions for the remainder of the season. Lochner says this year’s growing season has been favorable so far.

Weather and more

Wick said Massachusetts growers dealt with a cold spring that included some frost events, followed by a summer with extended periods of unseasonably dry and hot weather. The coronavirus pandemic also forced growers to retool their approach, including taking extra precautions to prevent the spread of the virus, he said. 

"This season has seen its share of challenges for Massachusetts growers," Wick said in a statement. "Farming is always complex. When your success is at the mercy of the weather, patience and ingenuity are paramount, attributes our growers demonstrate with abundance."

Massachusetts, which is home to Ocean Spray, is the second-largest cranberry growing region in the country after Wisconsin. The other primary growing states are New Jersey, Oregon and Washington.

Cranberries are the largest agricultural food produced in Massachusetts, with an annual crop value of about $60 million, according to Wick's association, which represents more than 300 local growers. The industry also provides nearly 7,000 jobs and generates more than $1 billion for the state's economy, the association said. 

More than half the entire world’s supply of cranberries are grown on Wisconsin family farms, generating $1 billion in state economic impact and providing thousands of local jobs. Cranberries are grown on 21,000 acres across 20 counties in central and northern Wisconsin. Approximately five percent of this year’s crop will be sold as fresh fruit, and the remaining cranberries will be frozen and stored for longer-term sales as frozen berries, dried cranberries, juices, sauces and more.

Colleen Kottke of the Wisconsin State Farmer and Rick Barrett of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report