There was a time when the holidays meant peak marketing opportunities for some commodities ... turkey, certain tree nuts, and, of course, cranberries.
But thanks to product development and clever marketing campaigns, one-time specialty foods like cranberries have become everyday fare. That's a fact NOT lost on the farmers of Wisconsin. In a market once dominated by East Coast growers, Wisconsin has seen an explosion in the number of cranberry producers in recent years. Indeed, as producer David Miller found, the sales potential of the cranberry market is turning the dairy state into the berry state.
It is late in October and the last of the Wisconsin cranberry crop is being harvested. Production of the tart red berry is not a new activity in the state. Some of the original bogs were actually started in the 1840s.
This crew at Owl Creek marsh is helping grower like Dan Brockman, carry on a Wisconsin cranberry tradition that stretches back almost 60 years.
Dan Brockman, G. Brockman, Inc: "Since the late 1940's. My father grew up on a dairy farm and he worked on some cranberry marshes and when he got out of World War II then he bought a cranberry marsh and developed it and expanded it.
Since its small beginnings, the Brockman operation has remained family owned and grown to 160 acres. This year's crop yielded slightly less than the state average of 200 barrels per acre. The standard measure for the industry has one barrel being equivalent to 100 pounds of fruit.
Across the United States, approximately 5.83 million barrels are expected to be harvested and transformed into everything from dried fruit to juice to sauce. Surprisingly, Wisconsin's final haul is predicted to be greater than the combined output of the other major producing states: Oregon, New Jersey, Washington State, and Massachusetts. The projected bounty for Wisconsin is in the 3.2 million barrel range, firmly placing the state in the number one slot.
Tom Lochner, Executive Director Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association: "So, it looks like we've got a pretty good crop here in Wisconsin in terms of size and yield. Our color is off a little bit because of the warm weather that we've had this fall but in terms of size the crop looks real good here in Wisconsin."
Wisconsin's number one standing in the market is actually a new phenomenon. For years, the dairy state languished as number two but a surge in demand during the mid-90s brought more acres on line. Even with the increased production, prices hit all time highs of $65 to $80 per barrel.
Unfortunately, by 1999, two bumper crops, coupled with flattening demand, brought the market crashing down to $8 per barrel, well below the cost of production. But over the past two years, prices, as well as demand, have rebounded.
Tom Lochner, Executive Director, Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association: "And as a result, prices have recovered and they're back up in the thirty dollar per barrel range expected on last year's crop and a little bit, maybe a little bit better than that this year. So, we're seeing some improvements. The prices are still below the cost for production. Most growers figure about thirty-five dollars is what's needed long-term to maintain a viable operation. So, we're seeing prices recovering. It's better than it was and that improvement, of course, is welcome by the growers as well.
In response to the crash of '99, the United States Department of Agriculture put marketing orders in place during the 2000 and 2001 seasons. The action effectively reduced the surplus causing a rise in prices paid to producers. Even though this year is expected to be a bumper crop, the USDA decided the market was in good enough shape to avoid the need to issue a marketing order. <
Traditionally, the cranberry was a symbol of the winter holiday season but industry leaders have worked to make it an everyday companion. At one time, the major portion of sales to consumers took place during the period from Thanksgiving to the Christmas holiday; now, that period amounts for about 25% of the total. During those few short weeks, the predominant product sold was fresh fruit but now there are more than 200 products available.
Most of the crop is sold to a short list of five processors which control 97% of the market. The Massachusetts-based Ocean Spray cooperative is the leader, handling an estimated 60% of the U.S. market. Of the other major companies, Wisconsin-based Northland Cranberries, Incorporated, recently announced slightly more than 5% of the juice sold in supermarkets was its domain.
Cranberry growers in Wisconsin number around 250 and that amount appears to be relatively fixed. Production marshes cover 18-thousand acres in 20 counties that run from the center of the state to its northern border. Most of the land is comprised of sandy soil, not necessarily well suited for growing traditional row crops.
With such a small number of growers involved in the industry there isn't much call for mass produced machines. Most of the tools and equipment are custom made.
Dan Brockman, G. Brockman, Inc: "You know, in the whole scheme of things cranberries are a pretty small crop. So, a company like John Deere, for instance, isn't going to make cranberry equipment specifically. There are some small machine shops that do design equipment and a lot of us make and modify our own equipment."
Getting started is an expensive proposition and, though there is room for expansion, growers do not believe it makes good fiscal sense to put any more land into production. When the market crashed, farmers did leave the industry but their vines were not plowed under. All the Wisconsin land in use before the crash in the late 90s is still being worked. With cranberry bushes taking three to five years to mature it is too expensive in terms of both time and money to convert the land to another purpose.
Dan Brockman, G. Brockman, Inc.: "... it's a perennial crop, it's an intensive operation to build and plant new beds.... So, it isn't something where I can say, you know, the price of corn is better than growing cranberries so I'm going to tear up some cranberries and plant corn. It doesn't happen. We pretty much have to live with what we have.
In today's market, most growers enter the industry by receiving the farm from a parent or by purchasing an existing property. And next year that property will be back in action when it's harvest time.
Tom Lochner, Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association: "...But if the economy recovers and we're able to grow the business, I think that's good for the state and good for our economy here as well.
For Market to Market, I'm David Miller.