Cranberry harvest kicks off in Massachusetts

Oct 9, 2019

It’s October, and the cranberry harvest is in full swing. 

Industry estimates predict a large, healthy crop. Marketers are finding new ways to sell local produce in the Bay State and an array of cranberry products around the world. 

Meanwhile, politics overlay it all as rising tariffs in China and Europe, retaliation for tariffs on foreign products imposed by President Donald Trump, threaten to affect the profitability of growing the bitter little berries.

A.D. Makepeace employees were hard at work harvesting early cranberries in Rochester on Friday, Oct. 4. Based in Wareham, A.D. Makepeace is the largest cranberry grower in the world. Their bogs are scattered across the South Coast.

Cranberries, which are not grown in water, can be harvested in two ways.

Some cranberries are dry-harvested by workers pushing walk-behind machines that rake the cranberries. Those cranberries are then tested for quality and sold as fresh fruit, and are most often used for cooking and baking.

Skid Whipple, the assistant manager of cranberry operations, explained the wet-harvest process. First, bogs are flooded. Because cranberries contain small air pockets, they float to the surface, making it easier to harvest them. Loading crews use a large tube to suck the cranberries out of the bog and load them into the truck before filtering out waste.

“It’s a fun job,” said A.D. Makepeace worker Japheth Richards. “It’s a tough job, especially when November comes.”

Massachusetts cranberry growers and workers like Richards are on track to harvest an estimated 2,093,000 barrels of cranberries this year, according to a report by the Wareham-based Cranberry Marketing Committee. That harvest will be down slightly from last year, when growers across the state harvested 2.2 million barrels of cranberries.

“We think this is going to be a very good year here,” said Michelle Hogan, the executive director of the Cranberry Marketing Committee.

Growers did not have to restrict production this year after two years of doing so, Hogan said. That restriction was necessary to get supply and demand back in balance. 

Keith Benoit,  senior vice president of business development and innovation for Carver-based Decas Cranberry Products, said that the berries harvested this season will be processed and sold throughout 2020.

The Cranberry Marketing Committee has been working to expand the international market for cranberries. Most recently, Hogan says they have been working in India and China to educate consumers about how to use cranberries because the fruit might not have been previously available to them.

For consumers closer to home, the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers Association is rolling out a new “Massachusetts Cranberries” logo to help shoppers find fruit grown in-state. The logo will appear on packages of cranberries produced by the more than 325 cranberry growers in the state.

Despite marketing efforts at home and abroad, new tariffs remain a challenge for the cranberry industry. President Donald Trump has imposed high tariffs on a number of goods, triggering retaliatory tariffs on U.S. goods. These tariffs have been though on the cranberry industry, explained Terry Humfeld, the executive director of the Cranberry Institute.

In China, there are tariffs on almost all forms of cranberries, but the most important and popular cranberry product in China is dried cranberries. Tariffs on dried cranberries have jumped from 15 percent to 50 percent. Sales there dropped 28 percent from July 2018 to June 2019.

In the European Union, where retaliatory tariffs have been assessed on cranberry concentrate, used to make juice, the drop in demand has been even more steep. Concentrate now has a 25 percent tariff, when previously it had none. Sales have dropped by 72 percent over the past year.

“Roughly a third of our crop is exported, so it’s very important to growers that they continue to have access to those markets,” Humfeld said. Humfeld said that the industry is a strong supporter of free and fair trade, and hopes that negotiators at home and abroad can reach a resolution.