CARVER — Cranberries were ripening in the bogs last week at Flax Pond Farms, and farmer Jack Angley was behind the wheel of his tractor while children sorted berries in the barn.
But as Angley prepared for his 52nd harvest, he worried about how much longer his cranberry business would last.
“Seven or eight years ago we were making $75 a barrel, now we’re making $30,” he said. “We’ve never been in debt before. It’s very frustrating at 80 years old.”
Massachusetts cranberry farmers have been struggling for years: Sugar-conscious consumers are buying less juice, and Canadian farmers are flooding the market with bigger berries and higher yields. This year, Chinese tariffs, which squashed cranberry exports, have made the oversupply problem worse.
As Angley and the 700 other members of the Ocean Spray farming cooperative endeavor to break even, the Lakeville-based cranberry juice behemoth is scrambling to innovate itself out of the problem, charging an in-house team with creating new products made with cranberries — fast.
Last year, Ocean Spray promoted a new chief executive, Bobby Chacko, and in May the food industry veteran opened a 60-person innovation hub inside a WeWork office in the Seaport.
The new 4,000-square-foot office in Boston, dubbed The Lighthouse, will act as a beacon guiding the company forward, company executives say. Among its mandates: Create new product lines to attract new cranberry fans, experiment with influencers and other digital marketing techniques, and make a push toward direct-to-consumer sales. Last week, it launched Atoka, a new product line of cranberry-infused tea tonics, oat milk elixirs, and energy shots aimed squarely at the Goop generation.
The diversification strategy worked beyond anyone’s wildest dreams 20 years ago, when the cranberry market beat back a downturn with a brilliant innovation: the Craisin.
“That saved our booty last time,” said Hilary Sandler, director of the UMass Cranberry Station, a research laboratory that is part of the Ocean Spray co-op.
Those shriveled berries are now “the driver of the industry,” said Brian Wick, executive director of the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association.
Although cranberry-growing is a $1.4 billion industry in Massachusetts, and the floating pools of fruit are autumnal New England at its finest, it’s been decades since the state led the world in cranberry sales. Wisconsin has outpaced Massachusetts’ output since 1996, and now produces nearly 60 percent of all berries in North America, Wick said.
The Quebec market has also taken off in the last five years, and now rivals Massachusetts in production, with its sales outproducing local growers in 2018. Many of the newer northern bogs grow larger fruit on higher-producing vines, Sandler said.
Eager to expand its reach, the industry sought export markets outside North America. But a promising push into China was stymied this spring when the berries fell victim to the US-China trade war, with $42.8 million in lost sales so far this year due to tariffs, according to USDA estimates. Though cranberry farmers received some federal relief to offset their losses, farmers say it hasn’t closed the gap.
Consumer habits stateside, meanwhile, haven’t helped matters. Many shoppers balk at downing sugary juice drinks, and some younger audiences consider canned cranberry sauce passé.
Atoka aims to change that. It’s the company’s first independent brand in its 89-year history, and there’s no signature Ocean Spray insignia anywhere on its packaging. Derived from the First Nations’ word for cranberry in eastern Canada, Atoka is also the name of a Quebec-based cranberry processing company that Ocean Spray acquired last year.
While other major food companies have created venture arms to gobble up smaller brands, Ocean Spray is committed to doing its innovation from the inside, said Rizal Hamdallah, Ocean Spray’s new global chief innovation officer. “Starting with innovation is hard. A lot of companies end up with buying or investing,” he said. “We took the hardest road, which is the build approach, because the payout will be better off. And that’s that we’re changing the culture and the mindset in the process.”
Hamdallah says Atoka products are the first of many new forays. His team has a dictate to bring new concepts to market in five-month sprints, using a “fail fast” mentality borrowed from startups. The herbal-infused products were a logical initial venture, given the cranberry’s established association with health properties, he said.
The fact that Atoka’s new cranberry drinks are infused with the likes of elderberry, guayusa, ginseng, and linden flower all taps into the rise of the wellness industry, where people increasingly seek their caloric intake from beverages, said William Masters, an economics professor at the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.
“Drinks are the new energy bars,” he said, and a simple way to engage in our cultural obsession with “food as entertainment.” And companies, eager to satisfy adventurous consumers, are obsessed with “coming up with foods that are charismatic and talkable and fashionable,” he said.
Ocean Spray is also taking a more forward-thinking approach to its flagship brand. In the past year, the company has aligned itself with younger, hipper businesses, and launched a new line of lighter Pink drinks — an effort to take some of the puckery edge off.
“The cranberry can be polarizing,” said Jared Ravreby part of the Cercone Brown Co. marketing team that worked with Ocean Spray, Vineyard Vines, and the breast cancer awareness group Bright Pink last month to bring a flotilla of influencers into a bog for Instagram photo-ops to promote the Pink drinks. (They also sculpted one bog into the shape of Vineyard Vine’s preppy whale logo.) “It’s a more approachable juice for those who might not be onto the full-on cranberry.”
It’s not clear that any of these strategies will add up to the next Craisin. And though new products may drive up demand for cranberries, they sometimes come with new demands for growers.
Sandler, the UMass researcher, pointed to the creation of white cranberry juice several years ago, which required growers to harvest berries far earlier, and threw off the production cycles for many farms.
“We’re all hoping with all these new innovations they’re coming up with, that something will stick,” she said.