Cranberries at 200: Market changes, drought create a crisis

Miguel Reyes (right) taught Kevin Adrean how to operate a wet harvester at a cranberry bog in Rochester last week. This harvesting season comes 200 years after the first known commercial cultivation, on Cape Cod.
Miguel Reyes (right) taught Kevin Adrean how to operate a wet harvester at a cranberry bog in Rochester last week. This harvesting season comes 200 years after the first known commercial cultivation, on Cape Cod. Elise Amendola/Associated Press/Associated Press

ROCHESTER — All is not well in cranberry country this harvesting season, the 200th anniversary of the world’s first known commercial cultivation.

In the birthplace of the industry, many Massachusetts growers whose families have tended bogs for generations are in ‘‘dire straits,’’ facing challenges that include rising production costs, decreasing crop values, changing consumer habits, and increasing competition from other states and Canada, a task force recently reported.

In addition, one of the region’s worst droughts in decades threatens to leave farms without enough water to flood bogs for harvest.

‘‘It’s been a real losing proposition for a small grower such as myself,’’ said Eugene Cobb of Carver, who said he has had two good years in the past 16.


Cranberries grow on vines and are typically wet-harvested by farmers who flood the dry bogs with water. Revolutionary War veteran Henry Hall is credited with starting commercial production on Cape Cod in 1816. By then, cranberries already had a long history in a region where soil conditions and climate are just right for the tart little fruit to flourish.

Cranberries remain Massachusetts’ top food crop, supporting thousands of jobs and generating $1.4 billion in economic activity, according to the Massachusetts Cranberry Revitalization Task Force. The state is home to Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc., an 86-year-old grower-owned cooperative and the world’s largest cranberry processor.

But Wisconsin surpassed the state as the biggest producer in the mid-1990s. More recently, Massachusetts slipped to third place in North America behind Quebec, where growers have benefited from government subsidies.

Ocean Spray’s 2016 crop forecast estimates Massachusetts will produce 2.1 million barrels, fewer if severe drought persists. Wisconsin is forecast to produce 5.8 million barrels and eastern Canada 2.6 million.

While cranberry sales remain strong, supply is exceeding demand.

‘‘You see demand of about 8 or 9 million barrels, and this year I think our industry is projected to produce 13 million barrels,’’ said Matt Beaton, an Ivy League-educated, fifth-generation cranberry grower. ‘‘The handwriting is on the wall. You don’t have to be a math major to see what’s going on.’’


Clouds spit a few morning sprinkles before giving way to hot sun on the first day of harvesting recently at Beaton’s 330-acre farm in Rochester. Two large, three-wheeled harvesters appeared to glide along the flooded bog as they separated cranberries from the vines. The fruit floated to the surface, turning the bog a dark pink.

This bog produces one of several new varieties developed through cross-breeding in recent years. The plump berries are 2 to 2½ times larger than their native ancestors, Beaton said, and are better suited for dried cranberry products — think Ocean Spray’s Craisins — that are gaining market share while sales of juice and sauce have leveled off.

‘‘That’s what’s driving our business,’’ Beaton said.

Over the past eight years, he estimated, he spent $1 million of his own money and borrowed an additional $3 million to renovate his bogs so they could produce the larger berries. But smaller growers without such resources are fighting for survival.

Brian Wick, executive director of the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers Association, calls it a ‘‘catch-22’’ — farmers need to renovate their aging bogs to stay competitive, but lack money. Massachusetts has the lowest yield per acre of any major growing state.

‘‘It’s a thought every day whether I should exit or not,’’ said grower Steve Ward. ‘‘But my gut feeling is that if you take a bog out of production, it’s never coming back. I want to keep that bog for the next generation.’’