Trouble has arrived by the bog-ful in Wisconsin’s cranberry country.
Supplies of the bright red fruit have trounced demand, sending prices paid to independent growers falling to levels not seen in more than a decade, industry watchers say.
Prices paid to growers have a huge impact in Wisconsin, where more than half of the world’s cranberries are grown. The annual value of the harvest in the state is $175 million to $200 million, according to the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association.
“It’s the worst time I’ve ever seen in the cranberry industry,” said Kurt Rutlin, president of the Wisconsin Rapids-based Wisconsin Cranberry Cooperative and a second-generation cranberry grower. “It’s truly disheartening.”
Right now there are simply too many cranberries on the market.
As of late November, cranberries were fetching as little as $10 per hundred pounds. But it costs at least $25 to produce that much, and many independent growers are losing money on every piece of fruit they harvest.
Growers are falling victim to their own success, having produced bumper crops in recent years.
“The crops continue to grow bigger. The inventories continue to climb,” Rutlin said. “There’s enough fruit in the marketplace right now to last us through next year if we did not grow a single berry” in 2014.
“The cranberry industry is in a truly terrible situation right now,” Rutlin added.
The situation has been building for years, said Matt Lippert, Wood County, Wis., agriculture agent for the University of Wisconsin Extension.
“Cranberry prices have been depressed to below many growers’ cost of production for several years now, and with the largest crop ever just harvested here in Wisconsin and, most likely nationally, the outlook is not good,” Lippert said.
Industry officials say some growers may not survive the price plunge.
“A lot of growers in the independent market are very, very nervous about what the future holds for them and looking for ways to increase returns,” said Tom Lochner, executive director of the state cranberry growers association.
Not all growers are facing the same problem. Certain growers that are part of the Massachusetts-based Ocean Spray cooperative receive better-than-market prices for their crop based in part on the value of the Ocean Spray brand and its associated products, especially its Craisins sweetened dried cranberry product, industry experts say.
Growers who belong to the Ocean Spray cooperative make up about 60 percent of the cranberry acreage in Wisconsin, according to research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“Ocean Spray growers have an established brand,” said Tim Feit, executive director of the United Cranberry Growers Cooperative in Wausau, Wis. “Independent growers are kind of off by themselves.”