September 30, 2012

Climate change may boost state's cranberry take

By North Cairn ncairn@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

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John Ewing/Staff Photographer

The two newer treatments -- Bt, or Bacillus thuringiensis, and Entrust -- have made a big difference in controlling "the highest fruit worm population I've seen in 10 years," Armstrong said.

Bt -- a toxic crystal pesticide first identified in the early 1900s -- now serves as a horticultural poison with residual toxicity lasting, at most, three weeks. It became part of the commercial chemical arsenal in the 1950s and in recent years has been part of genetically modified plant strategies, in this case to get plants to produce the bacterium on their own. Scientists are not certain how, exactly, it works.

Entrust, a spinosad bacterial pesticide manufactured by Dow Chemical of Midland, Mich., is a similar product that has been registered for use on organically produced crops.

The success of this year's cranberry harvest was not only that existing pests were kept down. In addition, the dreaded new fruit flies never materialized, Armstrong said.

And, for cranberries, like apples earlier this fall, the misfortunes of other parts of the nation have meant good news for Maine farmers. The summer drought devastated Midwest farmers and growers, reducing yields in fields, orchards, bogs and beds. The apple harvest alone in Wisconsin and Michigan saw yields plummet by between 80 percent and 90 percent.

"Wisconsin is being affected more so than I would have realized by the drought," Armstrong said.

The nation's largest cranberry-producing state, Wisconsin is reporting that the year's dry conditions there will mean cranberries will be hard-hit, too, because adequate moisture is critical at every stage of the growth and ripening of the fruit.

Farming always entails working with the "vagaries of the weather," said David Popp, a grower from Dresden, who is philosophical about the ups and downs of agriculture.

"We've had trends before in the past and we'll have them in the future," he said. "A little global warming doesn't bother me a bit.

"Every part of Maine is getting a little warmer," Popp said. "But we're so far north, we can hardly lose."

Popp has established cranberries on about four of his 140 acres in Dresden. Another 10 are devoted to a pick-your-own strawberry operation, and he raises a variety of fruits and vegetables, including raspberries, blackberries, high-bush blueberries, squash and pumpkins. Next year, he plans to give sweet cherries and peaches a try.

He expects that the crop will be ready a little "earlier that most years," and he will start harvesting around the second week of October. The berries, he said, are coloring up better this year than last -- another effect of the heat.

Armstrong estimates that the wholesale price of cranberries will reach 35 to 40 cents a pound, and retail dry-picked berries -- what the average grocery store shopper buys -- will run about $2.50 to $3.50 a pound. All of Maine's cranberries are dry-picked, yielding berries with a longer shelf life, Armstrong said.

To make the most of the harvest, growers say, the vines must be completely dry. Even a slight shower the night before, heavy dew or damp conditions from a light frost is enough to delay the harvest until the conditions improve on the vines.

Maine enjoyed a thriving cranberry industry in the 1800s, but it waned during much of the 20th century. A resurgence of interest in the fruit in the 1990s revived cultivation, and Washington County could accommodate more land in cranberries, Armstrong said. The grower-owned Ocean Spray of Lakeville-Middleboro, Mass., is looking as far north as New Brunswick for new acreage.

Staff Writer North Cairn can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

ncairn@mainetoday.com

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