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

(Continued from page 1)

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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

Additional Photos Below

“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.

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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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