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Cranberries are produced commercially in only five states.  There were 38,500 total acres under cultivation in the U.S. as of 2011.  Massachusetts (13,000 acres) and Wisconsin (18,000 acres) are the heavy hitters of the cranberry world.  New Jersey (3,100 acres), Oregon (2,700 acres), and Washington (1,700 acres) fall into the second tier.    

v-johnson_fs
     Cranberry Harvest on Island of Nantucket, 1880
      by Eastman Johnson
The cranberry harvest is measured in barrels, with each barrel equalling 100 pounds.  The U.S. harvest was 7.74 million barrels for the 2011 growing season, the vast majority of which went into processed products, although the small amount of the market that is fresh cranberries yields approximately 50% higher price per barrel.  (source (.PDF)).

At an average national price of $44.50 per barrel, the total U.S. harvest was valued at just over $344 million.  Price ranges varied by state, with Oregon at the lowest ($39.40/barrel) and, curiously, neighboring Washington coming in the highest ($55.90/barrel).  Production per acre also varies widely.  Wisconsin produced 245 barrels per acre, the highest, and Washington was the lowest, at 68.1 barrels per acre.

Below the Squiggle of Doom, I discuss modern cranberry production, and consider some of the implications of its current heavy dependence on pesticides and herbicides.

There's a myth about cranberries, and that is that they're grown in water.  Actually the cranberry bogs aren't really bogs most of the time.  They're flooded when in comes time to harvest (and sometimes other times to prevent freezing, control pests, etc.)

Here's how to harvest cranberries:

Our friends the Badgers have been busy indeed in the cranberry trade.  They are for example busy stoking up the fall tourist trade in central Wisconsin with tours of cranberry marshes.  And here's a video of those crafty Badgers bussing in the tourists to the irresistible tourist trap that is the Wisconsin cranberry industry!.

But Massachusetts is not going to let Wisconsin pluck all the tourist bucks.  The vast majority of the Bay State's cranberry bogs (that's pronounced "baegs" locally) are in scenic Cape Cod.  Heres a video showing hahvarsting the baeg, Massachusett's style, which appears to be considerably different than in Oregon:

But it's not so easy to get a commercial cranberry industry established.  Maine, which seems like it ought to be a good state for cranberries, has only about 200 acres in production.  Here's a 2003 report from the University of Maine on some of the problems:

* Although there has yet to be a surplus of cranberries in Maine, an overall national surplus from 1999 to 2001 of cranberries destined for processing (i.e. water-harvested fruit) caused a price collapse that, even in Maine, resulted in prices that were far below production costs. However, due to aggressive development and promotion of new cranberry products (particularly by Ocean Spray®), and additional positive health findings, prices are rebounding and are expected to incrementally increase, eventually arriving at a modest but profitable level that is less subject to large fluctuations.

* Construction of a new cranberry plantation is most likely to win approval on an upland site, because suitable wetlands are protected by federal, state and local laws. Site permits must be obtained from the appropriate agencies before construction can begin.

* The costs of establishing a cranberry plantation are very high for an agricultural commodity—generally between $20,000 and $50,000 per acre. A newly constructed acre should generate an annual return of somewhere between $4,500 and $8,250 for processed berries, assuming a yield of 150 barrels per acre and a somewhat conservative price from $30 to $55 per barrel. Returns for dry-harvested or organic berries are likely to be two to three times higher.

* Water management (flooding and irrigation), weed, insect and disease control, bee rental, fertilization, harvesting, labor recruitment and supervision, equipment maintenance and marketing are major concerns that need to be addressed every season.

* Local markets for fresh cranberries in Maine have been consistently strong, and so growers using dry-harvesting methods have had an easy time finding profitable niche markets for their berries and value-added cranberry products. This has been especially true for Maine’s handful of organic cranberry growers.

Canada forms the main competitor for U.S. grown cranberries, and the tricksey Canadians used metric measurements for their cranberry report!  Anyway, the Canadians have some funny units up there call hectares and back in 2007, 3,952 of them hectares are used for cranberry production.  That's about 9,761 acres.  (source.), or about 1/4 of total U.S. acreage.  Over half of the hectares in production were in British Columbia (2,056 hectares).

Commercial cranberry production is heavily dependent on pest and disease control, and in most cases this means chemical applications.  Our Canadian friends have handy charts  summarizing the very wide array of chemical applicants.  For example, copper oxychloride, called a "non-reduced risk" is applied to counter fruit rot fungal complex, leaf blight, and twig blight.  And, according to the European Union, copper oxychloride is very toxic to aquatic organisms, may cause long-term adverse effects in the aquatic
environment
. (.PDF).    Going back to our Canadian inventory of cranberry problems, when you read further, you find:

There are insufficient reduced risk alternatives available for the control of fruit rots.
Since harvesting of cranberries pretty much always involves flooding of the bogs, the possibility of subsequent water pollution arises should the bog have been treated with copper oxychloride.  And this is just one of a number of chemical applicants.  

And so we see that much as we love the charming appearance of cranberry bogs, especially around harvest time, and we support the cranberry farmers, the environment issues associated with cranberry farming are serious ones.  This is typical of all of our agriculture today, because we want plentiful food at a low price, but to achieve this, we have to use methods that have wider impacts, and may impose hidden costs.

An alternative of course is the so-called organic cranberry, for which our Badger friends at the University of Wisconsin prepared a 2005 report, which in summary stated:

The major problems facing organic cranberry growers include weeds, insect pests, fruit rot and other fruit quality issues; but most significant is a 50% or more reduction in yield compared to conventional production. There is room for the organic cranberry market to expand, yet many growers who have tried it have given up because the price could not make up for the yield loss and costs associated with organic production. Research into improved fertilization techniques and varieties better suited to organic production could overcome the yield drop and improve the economic feasibility of organic production.
Here's a recent video discussing organic cranberry farming pioneers in Pacific County, in Washington State:

Again, what we see with cranberry production, consistent I believe with agricultural production in general, is that the market favors higher yields per acre, but these can only be achieved with significant downside effects.  Because these costs, such as the ecological effect of pesticide and fungicides, aren't charged back to the producers, but are born by the commons, the price of agricultural products produced by these means, including cranberries, remains low, because in effect they are effectively subsidized by all of us.  Organic cranberry production lacks the benefit of this effective subsidy, hence it finds competition difficult.

Well, that's all for now, but there's a lot more that could be written about the humble     vaccinium oxycoccus.  What do you think?

Pax.

Originally posted to Plan 9 from Oregon on Sat Apr 21, 2012 at 09:35 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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