HARRINGTON, Maine — For Down East Maine’s cranberry growers, 2012 was both the best of times and the worst of times.
Some growers reported their best yields ever. Others are still licking their October harvest wounds.
“Farming is like going to the casino,” Bob Hammond said Friday. He tends nine cranberry beds spread over 6 ½ acres at Lynch Hill Farms off Route 1A in the Washington County community of Harrington. His crop, he said, was dismal at best.
“We had a problem with losing water in the spring, when we had days when it was 85 degrees, and we also had problems with worms. And it’s been so warm that I’m not sure the keeping quality was very good this year. On average, we would harvest 160 barrels an acre [a barrel equals 100 pounds]. This year,we had hardly any.”
University of Maine Extension estimates fewer than 250 acres of cranberry bogs exist in all of Maine, with roughly 187 acres of Maine’s total cranberry acreage in Washington County.
Cherryfield Foods, a Canadian-based company that owns and harvests about half of Maine’s cranberry bogs had “a very good yield,” according to Farm Manager David Yeatts, who declined to be more specific, citing company policy on keeping harvest results close to the vest.
Sugar Hill Cranberries had a “good year” at an estimated 130 barrels-an-acre yield on its 10 acres of bogs north of Columbia Falls, although wet weather in October threw a wrench in the harvest season.
“It was so rainy that we only had five days to pick, and some of the berries never did dry, so we didn’t have as many as we might of,” said Christine Alexander, who works their five bogs with her husband, John. “With some varieties, we had about 20 percent shrinkage, which were berries we couldn’t sell.”
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 shelf life that can extend into April, while wet-harvested berries need to be processed right away for juice or as ingredients in cake and muffin mixes.
Charles Armstrong, the University of Maine Extension cranberry specialist, said last year’s prices were about 35 cents per pound for wet-harvested fruit, with dry-harvested berries bringing anywhere from $1.75 to $2 a pound. While prices remain a moving target this year, he expect them to be about the same.
Alexander did not want to be specific, but said prices were good for water-harvested berries that are sold to processors who manufacture juice and cranberry sauce. Direct retail sales of dry berries were up this year, Alexander said, although they ran out of berries before they ran out of potential customers.
Last fall the couple took a load of fresh cranberries to the popular New Amsterdam Farmers Market in New York City. This fall they didn’t make the trip, Alexander said, as the site of the market at one point was 7 inches underwater due to superstorm Sandy.
Alexander said Monday she’s been busy experimenting with “value-added” products that are cranberry-based. Most recently she’s been working on a pickled cranberry recipe.
“Value-added is where the money is,” she said. “And I’ve been thinking about a number of different products. The pickled cranberries were interesting. They tasted kind of like pickled beets. I sent jars to two different restaurants for them to feature at Thanksgiving, but I haven’t heard back from them.
“Our gross harvest was good,” she said. “But, with shrinkage, there were some wholesale buyers whose needs we couldn’t meet. It seems that when we have the berries, we don’t have the weather, and when we have the weather, we don’t have the berries.”
Armstrong said Monday he’s still collecting harvest reports that he will use to crunch the numbers in comparing Maine’s 2012 yield to yields from previous years. He said he expects that the state’s 2012 cranberry 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 the few anecdotal reports he’s fielded were upbeat, but cautioned that those came from only two of the state’s 30 cranberry growers.
“Grace Falzarano, who has four acres of bogs in Columbia Falls, told me that it was a great year, the best ever,” Armstrong said Monday. “She was estimating that she had 220 barrels per acre. Another Down East grower said their yields were down compared to last year, but last year for them was a record yield.”
Falzarano said she has four small bogs of various sizes spread over her four acres that were established in 1997. She attributes a “great year” to favorable weather and the ability to irrigate as needed.
Asked if she were happy with the price she received for her wet-harvest berries, she replied, “At 35 cents a pound? Of course not.”
Cranberries are one of only three fruits native to New England, the others being wild blueberries and Concord grapes. While cranberries grow wild in boggy areas adjacent to lakes and streams, Armstrong said this year’s warm and wet weather pretty much decimated the wild crop.
“I was getting calls from people from Bar Harbor who had their favorite hunting grounds for cranberries, places where there are usually large amounts of wild ones,” he said. “This year, they were almost extinct. I think it was a combination of frost during the bloom and lots of rain. They grow on the edges of lakes and creeks and in swamps, but they don’t flower or set fruit if there’s no pollination or, if during the fruit set, they are underwater. The wild crop throughout the state was pretty much wiped out.”