November 24, 2013

Maine cranberry growers say it’s hard to stay out of the red

They’re choosing different ways to respond as a glut in the market drives prices lower.

By Mary Pols mpols@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

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David Popp of Popp Farm in Dresden holds a few cranberries from one of his bogs. He refused to harvest most of his crop because of the low market price.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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David Popp fills an antique cranberry sorter with organic cranberries harvested from one of his bogs on his farm in Dresden. He plans to sell them in 25-pound boxes to local markets. He refused to harvest his non-organic cranberries because of the low price.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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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.

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Additional Photos

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Cranberries are available for sale at the Portland Farmer’s Market on Wednesday. Growers say that they’re grateful for consumers who buy local berries.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

  


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