Cranberry crops fall short this year, but producers still look ahead with optimism

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
Cranberry production shown in 2018 in Warrens, Wis., the home of the Warrens Cranberry Festival and many cranberry growers.

Even though the cranberry harvest in Wisconsin and nationwide fell short of 2020 projections, growers are feeling good about what the holiday season will bring.

While spending much more time at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, people are rediscovering their love for cranberry juice, says Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association executive director Tom Lochner. While some cranberry products end up on restaurant tables rather than in at-home cooking, Lochner said the fact that people are cooking at home more is making up for the loss of demand from the food service industry.

"As an industry, we're always looking for new recipes and developing them, and we either post them online or share through social media," Lochner said. "We've been doing that continually, and hopefully people are finding more ways to incorporate cranberries and juice drinks into their diets. There's different ways they can do that."

RELATED: Cranberry farmers upbeat about harvest despite challenges

Lochner said cranberry sales jumped in April when Gov. Tony Evers' "Safer at Home" order went into effect, although sales have tapered since then. He urged Wisconsinites to buy cranberries early and freeze them for later use, especially fresh cranberries, because there is such a short supply of them after the holidays until the next harvest season. Cranberries are a traditional component of Thanksgiving and Christmas meals, with 3% of the crop being sold during the holiday season.

Some supply chain issues also occurred, Lochner said, as well as labor shortages, that made distribution a little more difficult – but growers and processors got through it. As the holidays will certainly look different this year due to COVID-19, Lochner said the cranberry industry will navigate "uncharted territory" along with other crop industries, introducing some general anxiety for farmers.

Cranberries aren't just for Thanksgiving, studies show the berries are filled with antioxidants that helps improve heart health while supporting a strong immune system.

With the harvest season coming to a close this year, Lochner said the unusual weather patterns led to a short crop for the season. A late-spring freeze and cool weather in August had an impact on the harvest overall, with estimates projecting the Wisconsin crop return to just under 500 million pounds. The average yield is about 550 million pounds.

"This year's growing season was a bit unusual – we thought we'd have a pretty good crop coming on, but we did see some winter damage," Lochner said. "As a result, our crop is going to be below what the projection was. Depending on which numbers you use, (the projection was for) 550 or 560 million pounds. I think we're going to be below 500 million pounds."

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On trade, Lochner said that even though almost 85% of the entire world's cranberry crop is grown in the US, the country is still at a trade disadvantage compared to other frontrunner producers, like Canada and Chile, because the US doesn't have a free-trade agreement with the European Union. It also doesn't help that tariffs against the US in Asian markets are so high, he said, which helps the US's competitors to overtake those markets.

Overall, though, it is not a huge concern to Lochner because he said once cranberries come into demand, foreign markets will have little choice but to come to the US for the fruit.

Cranberry grower Mary Smedbron is pictured, upper right, to promote the state's cranberry industry.

Mary Smedbron, a cranberry grower who helps her family run Saratoga Cranberry Co. in Wisconsin Rapids, said there was certainly an adjustment period during this year's season. Even with all the negative impacts the pandemic has put on the farming community, she said it's actually helped because people are thinking about their health more, and through that, buying more fruit.

"With the pandemic going on right now, I would say that there is actually a surge in people going and buying juice and trying to stay healthy," Smedbron said. "Honestly, it's helping farmers right now."

RELATED: Sending fewer crops to market helping cranberry growers

With her family being in the cranberry business for more than a century, Smedbron said she takes pride in being a steward of the land and making sure they use sustainable practices on the marsh. They grow cranberries on 70 acres, but for every acre of that, there are six more acres free for wildlife to roam. She said the extra work makes it worth seeing the cranberries float each year.

"We are proud of our land and trying to upkeep it, trying to make it last for generations to come," Smedbron said. "Our marsh's water is gravity fed, so when we need water, we take it from the ponds and it flows through our property. Our marsh is actually built on a tier system so we can reuse the water through the harvest season."

Jim Bible of Brockway Cranberry in Black River Falls wades through a flooded cranberry marsh as berries are about to be gathered.

Second generation cranberry grower Jim Bible recently sold one of his marshes to the Wisconsin Cranberry Research and Education Foundation as part of a long-brewing research project for the industry. Bible said he was looking to restructure the business, which still has two marshes in Jackson County and Clark County, and the perfect opportunity arrived at the right time.

RELATED: New WI Cranberry Research Station is a "fruitful partnership"

"They sent letters out to all the growers in the state who are members of the WSCGA saying they'd been thinking about doing a research station for 20 years and they finally decided it was time for them to decide to do it or forget about it," Bible said. "We put our hat in the ring to see if they were interested. One thing led to another and that's the way it ended up. We're only about 15 minutes away, so we do things there to help out and donate time."

Bible and his family have been in business for 40 years growing cranberries for Ocean Spray ever since his father, Tom Bible, bought a cranberry marsh without any prior experience. Bible said the pandemic has led to higher juice sales because of people staying home. Exports were deeply affected, but luckily for Bible, most of his sales are domestic and didn't hurt him much.

Although this year has made things different with COVID-19 and a short crop, Bible said he was happy with the growing and harvesting seasons this year as labor and weather conditions never got too bad.

"We had plenty of moisture. We did have some cooler nights in August, which might have suppressed the size of the berries. The weather is the big player," Bible said. "A cranberry marsh kind of lends itself to social distancing because you're never standing right by anybody working or anything, you're usually outside in the open air by yourself. We were pretty well set up to handle that aspect of COVID-19."

American Berry Company logo

A new cranberry company comes to Warrens

Warrens is considered by many to be the heart of the cranberry industry in Wisconsin because of the annual Warrens Cranberry Festival, which was canceled earlier this year due to the pandemic. Now, a new company called the American Berry Company will be setting up shop in the former CranGrow processing facility.

Willie Traina and John Potter are the investors who bought into the company earlier this year. Both considered leaders in the dried fruit industry, Traina is the CEO of Traina Foods, Inc., a sun-dried fruit producer, and Potter co-owns two businesses that produce nuts and some dried fruit. They are looking forward to moving into the Warrens plant as early as January.

"We only closed (on the purchase) sometime in October. Needless to say, we are excited," Traina said. "We love Wisconsin, we love the growers. It was a good synergy between John and I. We looked at it and we thought it was a good match."

Traina said they hired Alan DeVore to be CEO of American Berry Co., who was also president and CEO of Graceland Fruit, a dried fruit production company based in Frankfort, Ky. Graceland began operating a new division in Wisconsin in 2017, Graceland Fruit Wisconsin, also in Warrens. Traina said these connections made him eager to hire DeVore because he has good relationships with those in Wisconsin's cranberry industry.

"I'm very impressed with him and his knowledge of cranberries and just his overall demeanor," Traina said. "We were so excited to get Al because not only does he give us comfort to run a cranberry plant, but also I think it's great for our growers to have somebody like Al (who) they feel very comfortable with. We know we'll be able to make the right decisions."

Willie Traina is one of the founders of Warrens' new resident, American Berry Company, housed in the former CranGrow processing facility.

The company will not be making any major changes to the plant, but they will be adding new machinery for packaging efficiency and "innovation." Traina said they've also hired nine other people besides DeVore and plan on hiring 70 more people. The plant will mainly be producing dried cranberries, including specialty products like infused and sugarless (unsweetened) cranberries, as well as cranberry juice.

Traina said he and Potter fell in love with Wisconsin when they visited the state for the first time this year while touring the plant before its purchase. He said he also looks forward to participating in the Warrens Cranberry Festival when it happens again, and he also hopes DeVore will choose to join the WSCGA. Traina anticipates that the arrival of a new company will help revitalize economic interest in the area.

"We want Warrens to be the face of cranberries. It's a cute town and we love the area," Traina said. "We definitely understand the fruit world. I think we bring a lot of new energy and optimism, and we plan to look at things and do things a little differently."