May 25, 2018
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Maine’s cranberry growers find their healthy product under siege

By Sharon Kiley Mack, BDN Staff

It’s a crisp morning along the Down East coast, and in the flooded cranberry bogs off Cranberry Lane in Jonesport, millions of cranberries are floating as the annual harvest begins. The jewel-like colors of the wet berries catch the eye and bedazzle as harvesters head into the bogs wearing rubber waders and wielding lawn rakes.

The harvesters slosh waist-deep in 47-degree water, using the rakes to gently move the floating, bobbing cranberries into a suction box. The harvest shoots through the suction box into a long, flexible tube. The water goes one way, back into the bog, and the berries are blown into a tractor-trailer.

Maroon, red, pink — the colors of the berries indicate how much sun they got this past summer.

Unfortunately, many of Sid and Sharon Look’s cranberries are white.

This wasn’t such a good summer for cranberries, a niche crop in Washington County, experts and berry farmers agree. Too much rain caused the cranberry vines to grow like crazy, putting all their energy into vines and none into berries.

“I think I’ll get about half what I got last year,” Sid Look said, watching the berries fly from the hoses into the truck.

Charles Armstrong, the University of Maine’s cranberry expert, was on hand last week for Look’s harvest.

“I’m hearing it is not a good year,” he said. “The white berries are a problem because of the lack of sunshine to develop the dark color, and there has been a lot of vine growth because of the excessive rain.”

White berries are ripe — a check inside shows the seeds are brown, a sign of ripeness — but they lack the trademark cranberry color.

Armstrong said Maine has about 30 cranberry growers, and more than 80 percent are located in Washington County. In Maine the cranberry has grown wild on low vines in marshy areas for centuries but did not become a commercially cultivated crop until 1991.

The berry vines particularly love Washington County’s cool nights and warm days.

“Washington County is a particularly good place to grow cranberries,” Armstrong said. “They love the acid soils like wild blueberries, and the cool nights give them good color. Many other states are jealous of the deep red color we can get here.”

Last year, Maine’s cranberry crop averaged about 100 barrels an acre on 196.7 acres. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, each 100-pound barrel was worth $94.20 — or about 94 cents a pound. The entire crop was worth $2.1 million.

This year, those same barrels are likely to fetch about $35 each.

This is particularly disheartening to Maine’s growers, Armstrong said, because while the price may hover at 35 cents a pound, it costs 42 cents a pound to grow the berries.

“The industry isn’t growing since the price has been very flat,” Armstrong said. “The economy is depressed and [the] price paid for cranberries, not being a staple, has dropped.”

Armstrong said the only factor pushing cranberry sales is their health properties.

Look said that when he created his bogs in 1995, he didn’t even like them.

“I had a pond with a dam that was built in 1916, and I was trying to figure out what to do with all that water,” he said. “I was also looking for a hobby.”

Today, Look has 6½ acres of bogs and he harvested 68,000 pounds of berries last year. “It was my biggest year ever,” he said.

Look’s berries are harvested by Jasper Wyman & Son for the ingredients market and restaurants. Armstrong said the largest cranberry processors in Maine are Wyman’s and Cherryfield Foods and that most of Maine’s berries are exported.

“I am seeing a lot of interest and demand by the local markets, though,” Armstrong said. “I think the future of the cranberry industry really relies on the niche market.”

Because freezer space in supermarkets is at a premium, Armstrong said, many stores do not want to stock cranberries year-round.

“But I hear from folks all the time that they would purchase them year-round. I think the markets would really be surprised by the demand,” he said.

Nationwide, Armstrong said, there is a high consumer demand for cranberries and there are large spikes in overseas sales, particularly in Japan and Europe. “They have really tapped into the berries’ healthy benefits,” he said.

National studies have indicated that cranberries are rich in antioxidants such as vitamin C, flavonoids and phenols, Armstrong said. They are also rich in fiber and other substances that help protect against health problems such as urinary tract infections, chronic ailments such as cancer and diseases of the heart and mind (Alzheimer’s disease), and even mouth problems, such as gingivitis and gum disease.

Armstrong said cranberries are a good diversity crop for Maine’s farmers. “It takes three to five years from planting the vines until a good crop can be harvested,” he said. “That makes it more difficult for farmers because it is a long-term investment.”

Armstrong added that there are not too many insect or disease problems with cranberries.

Carlton Hoffses of Jonesport helped Look create his bogs and ran Look’s operation for five years. “First we bulldozed the bogs,” he said. “Then we put down a layer of clay and then fine sand. They like the moisture in the air — we are very foggy here and they like the sand,” Hoffses said.

Hoffses knows the depth and terrain of each bog like the back of his hand and warns the harvesters when they are going to step in a deep spot. The air is chilly but the water is cold.

“The second year we harvested, we had to break the ice,” Hoffses said.

In the spring, Look rents bees to pollinate the vines’ blossoms. “But basically I just sit back and watch them grow all summer and harvest like crazy over a couple days in the fall,” he said.

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