Freetown Farm’s 27 acres of cranberry bogs look like they popped out of a painting, with red carpets of berries splashed by sunlight and bordered by trees speckled with orange and yellow leaves. Owner Dawn Gates-Allen, whose great-grandmother started the Freetown business 90 years ago, never tires of the seasonal beauty.
“It’s a relaxing place to live,” she said. “Except it’s stressful.”
If that sounds like a contradiction, blame it on the nature of the cranberry trade. A crop that is too good can be bad news for independent growers, and this year’s harvest of the super-tart fruit — now underway — is expected to yield a near-record 210 million pounds, the state Department of Agricultural Resources reported Thursday.
The abundance of berries, combined with increased cranberry production in Canada and leftover inventory from 2012, is driving down already-low prices for growers. Some, including Gates-Allen, are losing money. Freetown Farm sells to Cott Corp., a private-label soda producer. Last year, Cott paid her $20 a barrel; this year, she might get 50 percent less. That is one-third of Freetown’s production costs, and far below the $48 a barrel it collected five years ago.
Gates-Allen and her husband, Fred, don’t rely on cranberry sales to keep their household running — she has a part-time job at the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association in Carver, and he works as a plumber and welder in Boston — but the declining prices have been discouraging. Operating the family bogs is a tradition they are bent on preserving.
“There are lot of pressures,” Gates-Allen said. “You have to keep the day job.”
John Decas, owner of Decas Cranberry Products Inc. in Carver, is sympathetic.
“This is the worst I’ve ever seen. I feel bad for a lot of the growers,” he said. “They’re not getting back their return for what they put in.”
Decas is offering a base price of $15.50 a barrel (100 pounds) with added incentive pay averaging $5 more for berries that boast better color and are free of rot.
Despite lower prices — for growers, if not consumers — cranberries remain a major agricultural business in Massachusetts. This year’s crop will be worth about $100 million, according to agricultural officials. The UMass Cranberry Station in Wareham says Massachusetts’ 14,000 acres of active bogs produce roughly 27 percent of US cranberries, making them the state’s biggest fruit crop. The majority are frozen and used in juice, dried, or condensed for nutritional supplements.
While independents struggle, growers fortunate to have a relationship with the massive Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc., are faring better. Ocean Spray, based on the Lakeville-Middleborough line, is a farmer-owned cooperative with 700 members. It processes and sells 60 percent of the industry’s cranberries, according to Daniel Crocker, Ocean Spray’s director of cooperative supply, and growers share in the profits. Because of that arrangement, as well as Ocean Spray’s international product line, top farmers in the cooperative are earning about $60 a barrel, on par with recent years.
But the cooperative, which also has growers in Wisconsin and other states, is currently closed to new members. And should membership ever reopen, there is a waiting list.
One factor affecting prices is increased cranberry production outside the United States, especially in places like Quebec. That has created more supply than demand, said Scott Soares, executive director of the Cranberry Marketing Committee, a trade board based in Wareham.
“Canada more than doubled production from 2011 to 2012,” Soares said. “It causes a bit of concern on the grower side.”
But there may be a deeper reason why most growers can’t command as much as they once did for their crops: Marketing gurus are running out of new ways to use cranberries.
The last dramatic industry innovation was 20 years ago, when the introduction of sweetened, dried berries reinvigorated the business. Ocean Spray sells the tiny, wrinkled fruit under the brand name Craisins, a wildly popular ingredient in everything from salads to energy bars to cookies.
“Right now we don’t have a new, powerful use for the cranberry,” Decas said. “We’ve gone from sauce, to juice, to sweet-dried, but there’s no new use.”
In an effort to boost business, cranberry companies are looking to Europe and Asia for opportunities to expand. Food industry representatives and journalists from Russia and Korea recently visited local cranberry bogs through a program sponsored by the Cranberry Marketing Committee. The goal is to get other countries interested in buying berries by touting their versatility, said Decas, who showed some of the groups around his own bogs and the company last week.
Another trade group, the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association, is working with Ocean Spray, Decas, and other local companies to apply for state funding to revitalize the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Cranberry Health Research Institute, which studies the health properties of cranberries. The fruit is rich in fiber, vitamin C, and antioxidants and has been shown to be effective in reducing tooth plaque and combating urinary tract ailments.
Industry leaders are also trying to get more recipes that use sweetened cranberries into the National School Lunch Program. Earlier this year, the US Department of Agriculture exempted the fruit from the agency’s strict standards governing the use of sugary foods, based on its nutritional value.
Meantime, local growers are doing what they can to combat price drops by planting hybrid berries and taking other steps to maximize yield per acre. Even there, they face challenges from out-of-state competitors. Because land is so plentiful in Canada and Wisconsin, companies are able to create massive growing grids that are more efficient than the natural bogs Massachusetts farmers tend, said Gregory Watson, commissioner of the state Department of Agricultural Resources.
“They make it a lot more economical,” Watson said of the grid bogs.
Still, Ocean Spray’s Crocker said he is confident the industry can move beyond the current slump through innovation and resolve. He is counting on local growers to carry on an agricultural tradition that over many decades has become indelibly linked to Southeastern Massachusetts’s identity.
Farmers “want to do the best with the land that they have, so they’re always looking for new and better ways to grow cranberries,” Crocker said. “Our job then is to go find new ways to sell the crops.”