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November 22, 2017

Maine Food Insider: State's cranberry industry striving to stay above water

Photo / Charlie Armstrong, University of Maine Cooperative Extension
Photo / Charlie Armstrong, University of Maine Cooperative Extension
While there are around 20 commercial cranberry growers in Maine, like this one in Columbia Falls, the industry both locally and nationally is hurting from a surplus, pricing issues and an unchanging market.

About 20% of cranberry sales nationally takes place Thanksgiving week. The fruit, one of only three native to the United States, was said to be on the table when the Pilgrims sat down with their Wampanoag neighbors in 1621.

And though it may now often come in the form of a can-shaped jelly, cranberries are still a Thanksgiving must-have, squeezed in among flashier tablemates turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing.

But even this week's holiday bump can't make up for the reality of a struggling industry. On Tuesday, Bloomberg reported that the nation's cranberry processors are awaiting word from the U.S. Department of Agriculture on whether surplus yields can be composted.

The national surplus has affected Maine's industry as well, said Charlie Armstrong, the cranberry expert at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

"But the industry is bombarded on all sides from other pressures, too," he said.

Yields are going down and demand hasn't gone up. And new larger strains of the berry mean processors need fewer berries to make cranberry sauce and cranberry juice.

More economically successful dry-harvested berries last for months, but can take a month to harvest; many growers in Maine don't have the time and manpower for that method. Flooding the bog and letting the berries rise to the top takes a couple days, but those berries only last a couple weeks. That's the universally popular harvesting method, and those are the berries there is a surplus of.

But Armstrong said there are also positives for Maine cranberry farmers who don't fit the traditional mold.

Ups and downs

Cranberries are made for Maine. They grow low to the ground, and they like cold weather — temperatures over 90 degrees stress the vines.

Still, distance from large customers, lack of technology and other factors ended commercial growing in the state by the early 20th century.

The first Maine modern-era commercial grower set up shop in 1988, harvesting a crop in 1991, according to the cooperative extension's website. In 1995, 4,200 barrels — 100 pounds a barrel — were harvested. Production steadily increased and, in 2013, 35,870 barrels were harvested.

Since then, things haven't gone as well. The market for wet-harvested berries stayed flat, and growers across the U.S. were hurt by a surplus.

Maine-grown cranberries brought $1.5 million into the state a few years ago, but in 2015, Cherryfield Foods stopped growing because of the market glut. The Washington County company, which still processes the fruit and also grows blueberries, owned about half of the state's 200 acres in cranberry production.

"So that's probably cut [the economic impact] in half," Armstrong said. By contrast, potatoes, the state's biggest crop, totaled $143 million in value in 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The wild blueberry, the state's fifth largest crop, totaled $27.4 million in value last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

He said the state's high of 30 cranberry growers in 2013 is now about 20.

Bloomberg News reported Tuesday that cranberry inventories topped this year's demand before the crop was even harvested. In August, the national Cranberry Marketing Committee, asked the USDA to approve the cranberries-to-fertilizer program. A decision is expected before the end of the month.

"The order will allow the industry to get back into supply and demand balance," said Kellyanne Dignan, a spokeswoman for Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc., the country's largest producer and processor.

Big success for small growers

Despite the challenges, Armstrong sees positives in Maine.

The surplus is mostly for wet-harvested cranberries. The state's two largest growers — Mingo's in Calais and Ricker Hill Orchards in Turner — dry harvest. He said dry-harvested berries bring $2.50 a pound. Mingo's, which began in 1994, has about 17 acres. Ricker Hill, which is known more for its apple orchards, began growing cranberries in the late 1990s and has one or two fewer acres, Armstrong said.

The big success stories, though, are small organic farms with three or four acres of cranberries that get as much as $5 a pound.

Sparrow Farm in Pittston, for instance, harvested 100 barrels this year. "They had a really good crop," Armstrong said. "The berries looked great, too. They were perfect."

Owner Karen Sparrow was too busy filling Thanksgiving orders to talk Tuesday, but her Facebook page lists more than 20 stores and co-ops from Blue Hill to Portsmouth, N.H., that sell her cranberries. Commenters on the page are almost poetic in their appreciation of the crop.

Armstrong said the state's most successful growers, both large and small, are diverse, growing other crops as well.

The increasing focus on locally produced food is also helping the state's growers, he said. "It's a good fit."

Love for the berry

Armstrong is one of those people who grew up thinking cranberries came shaped like a can. But now he eats raw cranberries by the handful, puts them on his salads and when his college-aged son recently went to a Canadian Thanksgiving dinner, he asked him if there were cranberries on the table. (There were).

As quickly as he can list the market negatives, he can also cite what's great about cranberries.

They're a super food, packed with nutrients, antioxidants and fiber.

They also can lower blood pressure. When the American College of Cardiology earlier this month set a stricter healthy blood pressure guideline, Armstrong's first thought was, "That'll help us."

Their tartness complements many other foods, and they can be added to recipes that go way beyond Thanksgiving fare.

Farmers like them because the vines can last up to 100 years. And the plants are pretty — from their spring blossoms to the fall ripe fruit — so they add aesthetic value to a farm.

The biggest benefit the state's cranberry crop has, though, is the growers.

"I don't hear many people say, 'It was always my dream to grow cranberries,'" says Armstrong, who spends the warmer months traveling the state talking to growers.

But, he said, "stubbornness and a genuine love for the plant" are a common denominator.

"The growers we do have left tell me, 'I'm in this for good. I'm not going anywhere.'"

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