MACHIAS, Maine — Down East Maine cranberry farmers had their best year ever in 2012 in terms of fall harvest yields.
Harvest numbers recently crunched by University of Maine Cooperative Extension’s cranberry specialist Charles Armstrong show that the 37,729 barrels of berries harvested last fall — with one barrel being the equivalent of 100 pounds — significantly surpassed the old harvest record of 29,000 barrels.
Those numbers were posted on the harvest results of 213 acres harvested statewide, with most acres located in Washington County.
“Overall, better yields were reported by a majority of growers,” Armstrong said Thursday. “I think it had a lot to do with better pest control products, newer insecticides that are both environmentally friendly and, with a very narrow chemistry, only kill the bad guy pests, not the spiders and the wasps.”
Armstrong said the weather was also a factor in the record yields.
“There was a nice blend of rain and sun,” he said. “There was a warm period in late winter and early spring when the plants got going early, and then there was a frost, but most everybody made it through. Spring pollination was good, too.”
Armstrong said most cranberry farmers tend to rent at least one hive of honeybees per acre for pollination, with some renting as many as three.
“During pollination we were worried because of cloudy, cool and rainy weather, which tends to hinder the activity of honeybees, but it worked out,” he said.
“Not only were the harvest numbers good, but the quality of the fruit was very good as well,” Armstrong said. “Some growers reported 10 percent rot, but most reported less than 3 percent and there were some who reported zero to 1 percent.”
Prices paid for the harvest, Armstrong said, were “not great, but have been worse.”
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.
Most of Down East Maine’s cranberry harvest goes to “wet” berries, which are processed for juice. Dry berries, which are sold in grocery stores and at farmers’ markets, are more labor intensive and command a much higher per-pound price.
“Overall, for wet berries, the price was 35 cents per pound,” Armstrong said. “Dry berries went for $1 to $2 a pound, although there was one organic grower who got a dry berry price of $4.50 a pound. That’s a huge difference between 35 cents per pound.”
Armstrong said the barrels-per-acre stats were also at an all-time high at 168 barrels — 16,800 pounds per acre.
This winter’s weather, however, has been “more bad than good” for the 2013 cranberry crop, he said.
“The deep freeze that we just came out of might have killed some overwintering pests, but now that it’s been so warm, they may be coming back sooner than usual.”
There are 30 cranberry growers statewide, with half of Maine’s cranberry acreage owned by Washington County’s Cherryfield Foods. Historically, there once were 1,500 acres of cranberry bogs in Maine, but now total acreage is less than 250.
Cranberries are one of only three fruits native to New England, the others being wild blueberries and Concord grapes.