Cranberry farmers buried under a glut of the tart fruit are seeking permission for a radical way to dig themselves out: destroying millions of pounds of their crops.
After struggling with an oversupply of the berries for nearly two decades, growers around the country are asking the Department of Agriculture for authorization to sell 75 percent of the supply and discard the rest.
With only a few weeks left before the Massachusetts harvest, the Cranberry Marketing Committee, made up of growers and handlers, is waiting for a USDA decision on whether the industry can cap the amount of berries produced.
“It’s been tough. Overproduction is the bane and has been for cranberries in the last few years, and consequently we’re not getting much money for our crops,” said Jack Angley, owner of Flax Pond Farms in Carver, which is a member of the Ocean Spray growers’ cooperative.
Angley is one of more than 300 growers in Massachusetts, which trails only Wisconsin in cranberry production. He and the rest of the industry are trying to reverse the painful cycle of rising inventories, lower prices, and disappearing profits.
If the government approves their request, farmers would hold back 25 percent of the berries grown, or roughly 100 million pounds.
Some would be composted, some likely sent to charities or researchers.
But it wouldn’t immediately eliminate the cranberry surplus.
The surplus increased from 4.6 million barrels in 2011 to 9.9 million in 2016, and it’s projected to reach 10.9 million barrels in the coming harvest, according to the USDA.
Each barrel weighs roughly 100 pounds.
Organic cranberries, which make up 5 percent of the industry, and handlers that processed fewer than 125,000 barrels in the last harvest would be exempt.
“We consider it a last resort,” said Brian Wick, executive director of the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association. “If there’s less fruit on the market, the idea is try to get an increase in pricing so growers can have a more stable business.
“Right now, many of our growers are running in the red.”
Last year, inventories were large enough for consumption before cranberry farmers even began the harvest, and too much inventory means prices could keep falling.
The marketing committee said the proposal would help reduce the overstock and increase barrel prices.
The USDA estimates the cost to produce a barrel of cranberries is $35, but the average price was below production cost in 2017 at $31.50.
Wick said that about a third of Massachusetts growers have been struggling to stay in business.
“They are running their businesses upside down, and for many growers they’ve being doing that for five years or more,” Wick said. “Obviously, that’s not sustainable long-term.”
Flax Pond’s Angley considers himself a smaller player. He grows around 3,000 barrels of cranberries each harvest, but he said some operations produce three to four times more than he does.
Although a cap’s not ideal, Angley said, it’s “what we have to do to stay in business.”
The vote for the proposal was unanimous, but some growers have expressed frustration, he said.
“Hell no, we don’t want to see crop destruction, but it’s the way it is,” Angley said. “We do it grudgingly.”
The proposal follows a similar regulation put in place for the 2017 harvest that kept 15 percent of the cranberries off the market. Growers handed their cranberries to processors, which then disposed of the excess by composting it or giving it to researchers and charities.
Wick said that most of the extra fruit was composted.
Ocean Spray, the largest cranberry handler in Massachusetts, did not disclose how many cranberries were composted in the state. But according to USDA statistics, approximately 1.3 million barrels of cranberries were diverted from the US market.
“As a food company, we don’t want to waste food if we don’t have to, and this isn’t something we do every year,” said Kellyanne Dignan, a spokeswoman for Ocean Spray.
Yet government intervention in agricultural output is hardly new, and the cranberry is one of many products plagued by overabundance. From corn to grain, US farmers have been facing flooded food markets.
Meanwhile, retaliatory tariffs on cranberries in Europe, Canada, China, and Mexico are making matters worse for the US industry, which exports about a third of its production.
“We, as farmers, have known there’s an overproduction problem, but we have been counting on overseas marketing developments to absorb what we are growing,” said Dawn Gates Allen, a four-generation grower who co-owns Gates Cranberry, with bogs in Middleborough, Halifax, and Freetown. “We’re all going to make less money this harvest.”
Still, Allen remains optimistic. She and her family have been preparing for the coming harvest without knowing what the USDA will decide.
If approved, the 75 percent cap would apply to this year’s harvest only.
If it’s rejected, the state’s farmers would have to figure out how to deal with the excess cranberries themselves, or hand them over to a processor to discard.
“I’m going to be optimistic and hope that I don’t have to destroy my own fruit,” Allen said.Alex Gailey can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @alex_gailey.