CHERRYFIELD, Maine — It’s harvest time in the cranberry beds and bogs scattered throughout Washington County.
Cherryfield Foods, which owns half of Maine’s 220 acres of cranberries, began its harvest Monday, with Farm Manager David Weatts predicting a “good” crop.
“It’ll be a good year, not only due to good weather, but good management,” Weatts said. “Cranberries need a lot of baby-sitting in terms of watching for heat, keeping them watered and dealing with insects. I’ve heard that some growers have had more problems with insects this year, but we haven’t. We’ve been pretty aggressive in terms of our integrated pest management efforts.”
Charles Armstrong, University of Maine Extension cranberry specialist, said Monday he’s estimating the 2012 crop will weigh in at 2.5 million pounds. While shy of the 2010 record harvest of 3 million pounds, that yield would be slightly better than last year’s harvest of just under 2.4 million pounds.
Armstrong said 85 percent, or roughly 187 acres, of Maine’s total cranberry acreage is in Washington County. There are 30 growers statewide. “The typical small grower will have three beds of varying acreage,” he said.
Cranberries are harvested “dry” by hand or mechanical raking for the retail market or harvested “wet,” with ripe berries floated to the surface of a flooded bog for mechanical harvesting.
Only about 10 percent of Maine’s fall cranberry crop is dry-harvested, with berries showing up in produce aisles of grocery stores and farmers markets as a fall and Thanksgiving holiday culinary must-have.
“Dry-harvested berries have a long shelf life that can extend into April,” Armstrong said. “But wet-harvested berries, once they are exposed to that water, need to be processed right away. Most are processed for juice, but some for ingredients in cake and muffin mixes.”
Armstrong said he expects prices paid to cranberry growers will remain at last year’s levels: 35 cents per pound for wet-harvested fruit, with dry-harvested berries bringing anywhere from $1.75 to $2 a pound. Organically grown dry berries can fetch as much as $5 a pound, although there are fewer than five organic growers in Maine, he said.
Many growers are dealing with pest infestations that are the biological byproduct of a warmer than usual winter, Armstrong said.
“The warm winter allowed a large portion of the cranberry fruitworm population to survive winter-kill,” he said. “In the adult stage, as moths, their populations have been really high, the most I’ve seen in 10 years of more. Even with spraying, this worm will reduce yields by 5 to 10 percent. Without spraying, you could be looking at harvest losses of 40 to 50 percent.”
Armstrong said growing season weather conditions in both Massachusetts and southern Wisconsin are expected to cut yields there.
“Massachusetts has seen a lot of fruit rot with their weather conditions,” he said. “Wisconsin experienced some of the Midwest’s drought pressure. The three Canadian provinces — New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia — each have about the same acreage for cranberries as Maine and have experienced weather conditions similar to ours.”
Armstrong said climate change is expected to affect cranberry growers over time, as cranberry plants have what’s termed a “chilling requirement.”
“It’s an internal clock based on temperature that triggers flowering in cranberry plants,” he said. “And it’s cumulatve hours, so that, if there’s a cold spell with a warm day in the middle, that clock will reset itself, which may disrupt the flowering process.”
Armstrong said the potential threat of climate change is prompting cranberry retailers such as Ocean Spray, which relies heavily on cranberries harvested in New Jersey, to expand its growing operations to cooler climes, such as New Brunswick.
“Climate change data for New Jersey and even Massachusetts is on the industry’s radar,” Armstrong said. “It’s driving more development in New Brunswick.”
Meanwhile, there’s some growth in the works for Maine’s cranberry industry. Alden Mingo, who now harvests 9.7 acres of cranberries in Calais, says he would like to add another 10 acres.
“It’s healthy food,” he said. “I’m not sure it makes sense financially, but that’s farming.”