There wasn’t a thing wrong with Dresden farmer David Popp’s cranberries this year. They colored up nicely and there was plenty of fruit, arriving not too early, not too late. Yet he mowed down most of his 3.5 acres of vines while they were covered in the dark red berries, harvesting only about 3,000 pounds instead of the usual 60,000 to 70,000.
It was that or lose money on the crop, thanks to a glut in the market. He had learned a hard lesson last year when he spent $3,100 trucking his berries to Decas Cranberry, a juice processor in Carver, Mass., and got less than half the price the processor had projected to pay for it – $15 a barrel instead of $35. The early hints he was getting about this season’s prices were even worse.
“They were being cagey about it,” he said, “which means it would probably be around 7 or 8 bucks or less.”
For Popp and other small-scale growers around the state, it’s been a year of adaptation as reality sinks in. The $1 million cranberry business in Maine, which 20 years ago was expected to be a boom commodity, is now a crop on which it’s hard to break even without clever Internet marketing, creative value-added production (like making jarred sauce) or an intensely local focus on sales.
“They were paying $12 a barrel in the 1930s,” said Christine Alexander of Sugar Hill Cranberry Co. in Columbia Falls, noting that the price of fertilizer, fuel for irrigation and transportation is rising as prices drop. “This may have been a make-or-break year.”
Popp’s plan is to pull out an acre of cranberries next spring, maybe turning it into a pond for bait fish and replacing some of his older plants in his other bogs with a different variety. Likely that will be the Stevens, a sweeter, bigger berry that is considered more appealing on the fresh market, the term used for sales of whole berries (what most use to make cranberry sauce to go with that Thanksgiving turkey). Alexander is grateful she’s diversified, running a goat cheese business out of her farm as well.
Meanwhile, Harry Ricker, who has 60,000 pounds of unsold berries sitting around at his farm in Turner, is contemplating how to play the “fancy corporate game” to woo more business from supermarkets like Hannaford, which so far this year has bought less than half of what it bought from him last year. This year’s fruit isn’t getting any fresher.
“It hurts,” Ricker said. “I can’t eat 60,000 pounds of cranberries.”
LOFTY GOAL FOR BOGS
As with any crop, there always will be ups and downs, but the history of Maine’s small cranberry industry is one of big ambitions and shifting expectations, albeit separated by vast gaps in time. The lore is that in the mid-19th century there were 1,500 acres of cultivated cranberry bogs in the state. They’d all but disappeared or gone wild in the late 1980s when Massachusetts producers like Decas and Ocean Spray came north and started looking for land to expand their businesses. Developments in Massachusetts and environmental regulations had cost them old bogs and were limiting new ones.
John Harker, director of market development for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, worked with the Massachusetts producers for a decade; his hope was that by the year 2000 Maine would have 2,000 acres of active cranberry bogs. It was a lofty goal – in 1998, the first year the University of Maine started tracking acreage, there were only 70 acres of producing bogs, with 106 more freshly planted – and one that ultimately was unmet.
“We ended up with about 250 acres by 2000,” Harker said. “And then the market dropped out.”
The blame shifts around – it was Canada, offering up subsidies like dirt cheap leases on good land for bogs, or Wisconsin, leaping into the business with its wide-open spaces – but everyone brings up the impact of regulations from the Department of Environmental Protection. Anything involving flooding land, even if it’s to produce something full of nutrients, raises eyebrows.
“Because of the environmental regs they ended up jumping over us and going to New Brunswick, Ontario and Quebec,” Harker said. “The Canadians were really pushing it.”
Popp was planting his cranberries in 1995 and 1996, when the window of opportunity seemed wide open. “And it was slammed shut on our (butts) by the DEP,” he said.
Still, there were some good years in there. In 2008, prices peaked at $80 a barrel, which local growers say had to do with a sudden passion in Japan for an anti-aging product that included dried cranberry power. Since then, the trend in prices has been a steady decline.
NATIONAL GLUT DRIVES PRICES DOWN
Charlie Armstrong, the University of Maine’s cranberry man, collects data on the number of acres planted with cranberries and the annual harvest. In terms of health and abundance, the state’s crop is in great shape, he said. Last year he estimated 35,729 barrels of cranberries were harvested in state, up from 23,663 in 2011. (His reported numbers for 2012 were lower, 32,782; not every farmer wants to share the figures for his yield, but Armstrong knows every bog in the state and estimates from that base of knowledge.) The glut is national, and it’s not like Massachusetts growers are any less gloomy, but still it has been hard for Armstrong to watch the prices fall.
Maine ranks sixth in the nation in cranberry production behind Wisconsin, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington.
Cranberries are Armstrong’s livelihood as well. It’s his belief that Maine farmers who have traditionally done wet harvesting – that’s when the bog is flooded and the berries rise up to the surface – for the juice industry should move into dry harvesting for the fresh market. “I think that is where the demand and the price are,” Armstrong said. “But a lot of them don’t have the time.”
That’s because they either have other jobs or lack the manpower to dry-pick, a more arduous process that might take a week or two, compared to the one to two days it takes to wet-harvest, and results in smaller yields. Then there is the time it takes to establish a presence at farmers markets, either as vendors themselves or selling wholesale to vendors.
“I tried the farmers market thing,” Ricker said. “But we pay health insurance, retirement and time and a half. I can’t afford to send a truck and an employee to farmers market. We lost money on it.”
That said, Ricker is grateful for everyone who does buy local Maine cranberries, either at the supermarket or a farmers market. “I don’t think we’d be here in commercial agriculture any more if it wasn’t for people buying local,” he said.
Ricker is the biggest of the smaller producers, with 12 acres. (Commercial processor Wyman’s grows the lion’s share of the state’s berries.) Even with all that extra product in the barn, he’ll rely on his apple orchards to balance out the bad year. And he can hope that maybe Walmart, which sold his berries throughout northeastern New England for a brief, shining period a few years ago, might come asking again, or that he can come up with some incentives to get Hannaford to take more berries next year.
“We work hard and we try to work smarter,” he said. “I think I didn’t work smart enough this year.”
In terms of thinking smarter, Nan Bradshaw of Bradshaw’s Cranberry Farm in Dennysville uses her website to find customers as far afield as Texas and Florida, shipping to people who don’t have the luxury, the way many Mainers have, of getting fresh cranberries at their local farmers market every November. She planted her four acres of cranberries during what Harker and others remember fondly as the “renaissance” of Maine cranberries.
“Physically it is very difficult work,” she said. “And as you get older you can’t keep doing it yourself, but you also can’t afford to hire anyone.”
The demographic of those who planted in the mid-1990s is aging.
“The people that went into this weren’t spring chickens,” said Bradshaw, 70.
And she knows of bogs that have gone by the wayside because of divorces, illnesses and death.
Armstrong was struck by the relative youth of the couple from Toddy Pond Farm in Monroe who called him up recently for advice on planting a cranberry bog.
“I’m 38,” Greg Purinton-Brown said. “I didn’t know that was considered young.”
He and his wife, Heide Purinton-Brown, could be part of the next wave of cranberry growers in the state. They’re hoping to get a few acres going this spring and sell only to the fresh market, or use the all-organic cranberries to enhance their cheeses. They’re not counting on boom years.
“It’s a long-term endeavor,” he said. “We’re doing the work now so that our sons can be farmers if they want to be. We’re doing this for the next generation.”
And he won’t be giving up his day job, telecommuting as a data analyst for Bank of America. Not yet, anyway.
Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at: