PLYMPTON – Plympton and Halifax are cranberry country. With Plympton having the sixth largest amount of active bogs by town in the state and Halifax recently moving up to seven, the industry dominates agriculture in both towns, the region and the state.
Massachusetts is the oldest cranberry-growing region in the country, and growers point out that the vine-grown berries are not only important economically to the Commonwealth, but to our heritage as well. The cranberry is the official state berry and color, and cranberry juice cocktail is the official state drink. We even call a vodka and cranberry juice cocktail a “Cape Codder.”
The Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association, which represents growers in the state, say that the 2016 crop was valued at $68.9 million. Massachusetts is home to approximately 1/3 of all cranberry acreage and is home to the two largest cranberry handling companies in the world, Ocean Spray and Decas Cranberries.
They say the industry provides more than 6,900 jobs to the state and a total economic benefit of over $1.4 billion.
But, the growers’ association says, “Today the cranberry industry is challenged by one of the most significant economic crises it has faced in its 200-plus year history, threatening the immediate viability for many growers in Massachusetts and the long-term horizon for the industry.”
This is a multi-faceted problem, says Brian Wick, executive director of the CCCGA. But there are bright spots.
Massachusetts’ 13,000 acres of commercial bogs, representing 20 percent of the world’s cranberries, are competing with other U.S. states, primarily New Jersey, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin. Internationally, Canada, especially the province of Québec, and Chile have become strong competitors as well.
As the market has shifted primarily from juice to more cranberry products, such as sweetened, dried cranberries, the demand for large size fruit has increased. The varieties that originally grew here, native to the region, do not always produce the large, uniform, better-looking on berries that the market seeks, and therefore growers have spent millions of dollars “renovating” their bogs, which are expensive, long-term projects.
Growers will often convert a portion of their bogs, over long periods of time, to compete with newer and modern varieties found in other, often colder, regions such as Canada or Wisconsin.
Loans and grants for these projects can be hard to come by, because it can take more than a decade to see a return on these sometimes low-yield investments.
But, the investments have a positive local impact, says Jeff LaFleur, a grower from Plympton.
According to the CCCGA, the renovation of bogs requires skilled labor, investments in irrigation equipment and the purchase of raw materials such as sand and vines. The investment, they say, has had a $61.5 million impact on the economy since 2007.
LaFleur, who sits on the board of Ocean Spray, has 23.5-acres of bogs operating as Mayflower Cranberries, supported by 112-acres of uplands and wetlands. He says it’s a “small farm,” but that it’s average for a Massachusetts grower. His bogs are the oldest continuously commercially farmed bogs in Plympton, he says.
LaFleur has been renovating some of his bogs. Bog renovation has environmental benefits, say growers, as newer bogs use less water for harvest or winter protection. Growers use 375-million gallons less water a year, across the state.
He says that using science to farm smarter, not harder, is the key. “I have to minimize inputs and maximize outputs, just like any business,” he said.
In terms of pollution, growers say they help maintain uplands, wetlands and habitat for many species. Science is also reducing reliance on phosphorous-based fertilizers, says Wick. While debate over pesticides and fertilizers in the cranberry industry is rampant, Wick says basic business sense will drive, and has been driving, growers to rely on less or better-targeted fertilizers and pesticides.
LaFleur pointed out the close proximity of the bogs to his home and family. “I wouldn’t put anything [on the cranberries] that would hurt my family.”
Bogs and the land that support them also contribute to open-space that stays on the tax-rolls, says LaFleur, despite tax-relief programs such as Chapter 61A. He points out that once land comes off the tax-rolls completely, such as in the case of the Two Brooks Preserve, it never comes back on.
He argues that bogs maintain that same open space, albeit in a slightly different way.
Cranberry companies are also pouring money into research and development, say Wick and LaFleur, developing all sorts of new cranberry products. One new Ocean Spray product on area shelves, pink cranberry juice, in part supports breast-cancer research.
Many people have heard that drinking cranberry juice can clear up urinary tract infections. But, other health benefits of cranberries are being explored, and it is now being marketed as a “super-fruit.” Cranberries and their juice are excellent sources of vitamins A, C, K and E, they are cholesterol free, low in sodium and free of saturated fat. Wick suggested cranberries might just be the next penicillin.
Another challenge, government, can be both a hinderance and a help to the industry. Growers are in a highly-regulated industry, from the local-level on up, and although Governor Charlie Baker has visited the region recently in support of cranberry growers, at the federal level, Trump-administration tariffs have restricted access to the Chinese and European markets, both of which have new-found tastes for cranberries and cranberry products.
The CCCGA would like to see these tariffs reduced or lifted. Both the CCCGA and LaFleur noted that relationships between growers and their neighbors are key. People often misunderstand why sand or water are being used during the farming cycle, and Wick and LaFleur says that most disputes between growers and their neighbors can be resolved through mutual understanding. Part of that understanding is coming from ag-tourism.
Ag-tourism, or agricultural tourism, is another bright spot in the industry. LaFleur and other growers in the region are bringing in tourists from all over the world to learn about cranberries, harvest them and even dine on the bogs during growing season.
LaFleur maintains a shop of artisanal cranberry products, some made with his own berries, which along with fresh cranberries, he sells from a barn on his property.
While he says ag-tourism is only about 10 percent of his business at this point, “it’s an important and growing part of my business.” He says that it can be time-consuming but that it is very satisfying. He maintains a website and social media sites to attract customers.
“People come from all over the U.S. and the world. Most are out of state, but about a quarter are local people, mostly from the city,” he says. “It’s hard to point to a single demographic, it’s all types of people and all ages.”
The industry, while at a crossroads, is clearly adapting to changing times, even though that is a struggle for growers. On the other hand, the public has never been more fascinated with the tart, round berries that we so proudly call our own. The future of the industry is still not in the clear, but with all the excitement around cranberries, they don’t seem to be disappearing anytime soon.