With cranberry prices at the lowest in a half century, Nodji Van Wychen has been forced to cut back on fertilizer, staff and pollinating bees just to keep her farm going near Pittsville, Wisconsin. Other cranberry growers are finding it easier to sell the farm to John Hancock Life Insurance Co. and its ever-expanding agriculture group.

“We pretty much cut everything in half,” the third- generation farmer said from her home at the family’s 110-acre marsh northwest of Milwaukee. It’s the worst environment she’s seen since 1959 when farmers dumped their entire crop amid a health scare. Van Wychen doesn’t want to sell the operation but admits the future of cranberries may not include family growers. “There are many smaller farmers that are finding that they literally cannot make it,” she said.

As cranberry season reaches its zenith over the Christmas holiday, farmers are increasingly selling family-owned cranberry bogs – the large tracts of wetland where the bobbing red fruit grow – to larger operators. One buyer name that reigns in these parts is John Hancock, whose agricultural investment group is actively looking for distressed cranberry operations to add to its $2.5 billion in assets.

“Right now the cranberry industry is under pressure,” Oliver Williams, president of the agriculture unit, said by phone from Boston. “We can find a cranberry farm that needs to be rejuvenated, has to be replanted, we can go in and buy that property. It’s the typical supply-demand response.”

Employees at the unit of Toronto-based insurer Manulife Financial Corp. are in constant conversation with other farmers.

Agriculture is a long-term investment, letting Hancock withstand periods of low returns for clients with decades-long liabilities.


The average annual return on Hancock Agriculture’s portfolio for the last decade was 14 percent, compared with 7.5 percent for the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index.

The $3.55 billion industry is still reeling from 2013, when a record 8.8 million barrels of cranberries was harvested in the U.S., an 11 percent jump from the prior year, according to the Cranberry Marketing Committee, the industry group that promotes the berries.

The bright red fruit flooded the market, pushing down prices as low as $8 per 100-pound barrel, from about $40 in 2010, according to the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association. It costs about $30 a barrel to produce. Last year’s harvest came in at 8.1 million barrels, the second-highest ever.

About a dozen marshes were abandoned in 2015, when farmers simply declared bankruptcy and walked away, according to Michelle Hogan, executive director of the Cranberry Marketing Committee. About 30 farms have been sold nationwide, with about half in Wisconsin, she said.

“It’s going to be a rough ride for the next few years,” said Tom Lochner, executive director of the commodity’s association in Wisconsin, the U.S. state that produces more than half the world’s supply of cranberries.

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