A Record Cranberry Crop Forecast May Not Be Good News; Low Prices Endangering Local Growers

By: William F. Galvin

Topics: Agriculture & Farming

The cranberry harvest forecast for Massachusetts growers is predicting a record year, but local farmers are saying the summer heat and drought may have an impact. The harvest season will begin in a couple of weeks. CHRONICLE FILE PHOTO

HARWICH — The U.S. Department of Agriculture is predicting record cranberry crops in Massachusetts and across the country. Local growers, however, are being more conservative in their crop estimates based on recent heat and drought conditions, and are wary of larger harvests that drive down prices.

“It’s basic supply and demand,” Harwich cranberry farmer Wayne Coulson said. “The greater the supply the more the price goes down.”

The USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service issued a report last week predicting an 11 percent increase in the Commonwealth's cranberry harvest over last year. Last year the state produced 2.16 million barrels of cranberries; this year the agency anticipates a 2.4 million-barrel harvest.

The USDA forecast for this year predicts a national harvest of between a total of between 8.9 and 8.7 million barrels, a 15 to 18 percent increase.

Increases in production are not always good news for small farmers growing berries on Cape Cod. And the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association is not as optimistic about record production in Massachusetts. The federal Cranberry Marketing Committee (CMC) has issued a slightly more conservative prediction for the state’s harvest this year, according to the association. The committee is projecting 2.04 million barrels will be harvested in 2020. The Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association is leaning toward the CMC forecast.

CMC’s crop assessment takes place later in the summer than the USDA observations, which stated 60 percent of the Massachusetts crop was reported in good to excellent condition. However, summer has brought high temperatures and a drought which can impact the berries.

“I’d definitely go with the cranberry growers’ association prediction,” Harwich cranberry farmer Leo Cakounes said. “They’re more in tune with what’s going on here this summer. The high temperatures and drought are not going to give you that big, plump berry.”

Cakounes said there were some beautiful blossoms in June, but the summer heat and lack of rain have had an impact. The ground temperatures in the bogs were hitting 110 to 115 degrees, which will impact the roots, he said. Those conditions create stress, and the young suckers that create next year's berries begin could be impacted.

“I’m not sure what stress will do to new growth and the crop next year,” Cakounes said.

The lack of rain will also have an impact on the current berries. Irrigation can only go so far, he said.

“You can irrigate ‘til the cows come home, but nothing beats a good rain storm,” concurred Coulson.

Through USDA programs, cranberry growers are being given more money to grow more product, Cakounes said. He questioned the program, saying there are already too many berries. Companies cannot use all the berries harvested each year. Cakounes said there are 7 million barrels of cranberries stored in companies’ freezers for future use. Every three years berries have to be discarded from the freezers.

“If you see cranberries in dog food, it’s because it is cheaper to give them away than to discard them,” Cakounes said. The markets are saturated and demand is flat, he said.
The more cranberries that are produced, the more the price goes down, Coulson said. Many growers are using new hybrid vines that are producing four times the number of berries, he said.

Making a living in the cranberry industry, especially when small farmers are getting $8 to $10 a barrel, is extremely difficult. Cakounes has 20 acres of cranberry bogs certified for production of organic berries. Organic berries usually bring in double the price paid for conventional production. He said the most he ever got paid was $108 a barrel, but those numbers have dropped dramatically in recent years.

There was a time when small farm cranberry growers could make a decent living. Cakounes said he remembers the late Jimmy Marceline telling him that many years ago they were getting $35 to $40 a barrel, but growers have not seen those levels in years. Large-scale corporations are the only companies making money in the cranberry business, he said.

“It’s not an industry where a family can make a good living, have a good home, and provide good education on a cranberry grower’s salary,” Cakounes said. “Cranberry farmers here all have second jobs. I think the future is looking incredibly dim. I don’t see anyone out there looking to take over my farm. It’s losing money.”

The cost of insurance has gone crazy, and between that and a mortgage, finances are stretched.

“It’s a paying hobby,” added Coulson, who has a 10-acre bog along Main Street in North Harwich. “It’s a sideline. I pay the taxes and cover the expenses then have very little in the black.”

Coulson said he sells his berries to a New Jersey company, Lassonde-Pappas, and they treat him pretty well, but it takes an economy of scale that comes with large acreage to make a living, he said.

Harwich was the community where cranberry farming blossomed a century ago, but there are now only four or five local farmers and Cakounes said 50 to 60 percent of the cranberry bogs have been converted to town conservation lands over the past 20 years.

“There are only a few of us left.” Coulson said of local growers. “The town and the conservation groups are buying up all the bogs and taking them out of production. It’s a shame.”