Business as Usual for Cranberry Growers Amid Political Backlash

Aug 29, 2018
Photo by: Ryan Morrill

With this year’s cranberry harvest beginning in the next few weeks, there is little time for growers to panic over tariffs imposed on the indigenous North American fruit as tensions between the United States and its trade partners escalate due to President Trump’s trade policy. Earlier this month, it was reported the European Union, China, Mexico and Canada have established tariffs on the cranberry.

The berry is almost exclusively grown in the United States and Canada. Whether Mexico will reconsider based on a preliminary new trade agreement brokered by Trump and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto recently remains unknown. Trump is expected to enter into negotiations with Canada in a move that could either end or rewrite the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“It’s just something the industry is going through right now,” said Stephen Lee IV, whose family owns and operates Lee Brother Inc., a cranberry and forestry plantation in Chatsworth. “There’s not a whole lot we can do (right now). It’s a moving target.”

News of the tariffs comes as cranberry growers across the country prepare to harvest the crops after a busy growing season. Cranberries are harvested from mid-September until about mid-October.

“I have other things on my mind, like weather predictions,” Lee said.

New Jersey is the third largest producer of cranberries in the nation, behind Wisconsin and Massachusetts, he said. Oregon and Washington state round out the top five. The 2018 New Jersey cranberry production forecast is 556,000 barrels, up 23 percent from last year, according to Bruce Eklund, state statistician of the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, New Jersey Field Office.

That's the largest hike in the nation, which is expected to produce 8.63 million barrels, a 3 percent jump over 2017, Eklund said in a statement released earlier this month.

“Wisconsin growers report some winter damage, but overall the crop looked good,” he said in that same release, noting the forecast for Wisconsin is 5.50 million barrels, up 2 percent.

Massachusetts’ production is estimated to fall by 1 percent this year, down to 1.895 million barrels, Eklund reported, while Oregon and Washington state production looks to increase.

“If we take our eye off the ball,” said Lee, whose family has been a member of the Ocean Spray Grower-Owned Cooperative since 1952, “there’s no crop. There are a lot of factors we can’t control.”

Still, he said, there are things that growers can control, such as staying focused on the task at hand.

“There’s no sense in getting upset,” Lee said.

The Ocean Spray story, according to its website, began in 1930 by New Jersey’s own Elizabeth Lee and two Massachusetts growers, Marcus Urann and John Makepeace. The company now has more than 700 cranberry and grapefruit growers in the United States, Canada and Chile. It’s the leading producer of cranberry juices, juice drinks and dried cranberries in the world.

The cranberry industry started in New Jersey in 1835 at a bog in Burlington County. The state is actually the southern-most place in the country where cranberries are harvested, Lee said. The Pinelands is one of the few places where the bitter berries grow naturally. The cranberry needs sandy, acidic soil that has a high water table.

“Each area is unique,” Lee said of cranberries growing in Wisconsin, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington state, “but we have similar soil. It’s a little more difficult growing in New Jersey because there is the stress of weather. There are a lot of weather events here.”

— Gina G. Scala

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